Guest Post: What is a “Proper Poet”?

Ed note: This week we’re featuring a guest post from writer Derek White. Derek’s post considers something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: how do we determine whether a poet is a “proper poet” or “professional poet”? What differentiates those “formal” poets from the “amateurs”: money, talent, publications, experience, how they market themselves? Derek’s post explores these questions through personal experience and reference to American literature. Enjoy!


Excerpt from The Big Bang Theory (when it was still funny):
Penny: I am a professional actress.
Leonard: Really? Someone has paid you for acting?
Penny: Oh, Leonard, that’s not what “professional actress” means.
Leonard (sotto voce): It kind of is.

A few summers ago my son Hamish was a volunteer at the Forest Café and did some back stage work at the Fringe, during all of which he mixed with a number of poets, or as he called them “proper poets”. When I asked what a “proper poet” was it turned out that it was anyone who performed poetry in public except me. I wasn’t offended. He has in fact sat through a number of my performances and always given helpful feedback (“Agnes was much better than you”).

One possible interpretation of being a “proper poet” is like Leonard’s above: someone who gets paid for their poetry. I’m not totally happy with this definition. I have made money from poetry – always as prizes rather than fees – without at the time thinking of myself as a “proper poet”. For the record, I have also won prize money playing chess, playing bridge, flower arranging (!) and way back in the past, for fancy dress, as one half of Pinky and Perky (my brother was the other half: we were adorable). I never thought of myself as a “proper” any of these things.

The other problem with that definition is that it seems to exclude someone like Gerard Manley Hopkins who as far as I know made less money from poetry than I have, but definitely qualifies as a proper poet.

A similar definition might be someone who makes poetry their main activity, regardless of whether they have a day job or not. I have some sympathy with this. People who have seen me perform have deduced that I don’t earn a living from poetry. I like to think that is due to their understanding of the economics of poetry rather than a critique of my work. A few have asked me what else I do, and I have always declined to say. I’m not ashamed of my job, though I’m not especially proud of it either. It’s mostly harmless. I just don’t want to be categorised by it. I’m also coy about revealing my age and if I could I would hide my gender and ethnicity as well. I want people to hear my work without any pre-conceptions. If any of these become relevant to a poem I’m doing I’ll let the audience know. However part of my reluctance might also be a sense that a proper poet wouldn’t have a day job. But of course they nearly all have.

One of the most extended considerations in recent literature of what makes a proper poet is J. D. Salinger’s Glass family stories. In “Franny” Franny’s boyfriend Lane asks her in exasperation, “I mean do you have to be a goddam bohemian type, or dead, for Chrissake, to be a real poet ? What do you want – some bastard with wavy hair?” Franny’s answer is “If you’re a poet, you do something beautiful”. Hmm. We learn in “Raise High The Roof Beam, Carpenters” that in Salinger’s view you don’t even need to write poetry to be a real poet: “A poet, for God’s sake. And I mean a poet. If he never wrote a line of poetry, he could still flash what he had at you with the back of his ear if he wanted to”.

Salinger’s vision of a poet as a mystical genius can be aspirational but is also quite narrow. It appears to me that to Salinger there only are two real poets, Jesus Christ and Seymour Glass, and Seymour Glass is fictional. Neither of them has ever done an open mic slot at Blind Poetics.

Of course another common mark of the proper poet is being published. It’s quite common for people to refer to themselves or others not as a “poet” but as a “published poet”. Katie has already written an excellent post on this, so I’ll just make a couple of points. (Thanks, Derek! The post he’s referring to is here.) Firstly there are now many ways to “publish” poetry. My work has reached an audience through slams, open mics, on the Internet, on a corporate intranet, in pamphlets, by email and most recently in a radio podcast. While I have mixed feelings about slams – competitive poetry seems an odd idea to me – they get an audience. A successful poetry pamphlet might sell 150 copies in total. I’ve done slams in front of 100 people in a single sitting (I usually go out in the second round, producing more helpful advice from Hamish: “Why don’t you write two good poems?”).

My second point is that publishing a pamphlet seems a very solitary activity to me, whereas it’s the companionship of poetry that I really like. That’s why my favourite poetic medium is the open mic.

To come to a conclusion I’m going to turn to another piece of American literature. Ben Lerner’s novel “Leaving The Atocha Station” features a young American poet spending a year in Madrid to write poetry on what looks very like a Fulbright scholarship. He is an idler and fantasist who drifts through the year without conviction until a Spanish girlfriend tells him “It’s time you stopped pretending that you’re just pretending to be a poet”. That works for me. If you’ve been writing poetry long enough that you’ve decided to stop pretending to be just pretending to be a poet, then you are a proper poet. Whatever your children may think.

I like the way Katie ends her posts so let me copy:

Performance poets: When did you decide you were a proper poet ? What made up your mind ?


Thanks, Derek! Remember, if you’re interested in writing a guest post for this blog on poetry, performance poetry, or creative practice, please get in touch! 

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