People at readings or in the halls of universities, or even in the street--though rarely in the street because I'm not that well-known--often say how marvelous it must be to be a poet. I smile, and say, "Well, yes, it is!" But, because I don't want to burst their bubble or their admiration of my vocation--or of me--I don't discuss the very real drawbacks.
Actually, I think, why would anyone want to be a poet?
Only three people read your work. Overstatement. Few know your work until you’re dead.
You suffer from multiple mental and emotional defects. You can compare your life to that of Slyvia Plath, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Annie Sexton, William Blake.
You try to make poverty appear chic, by romanticizing the house plant, day-old bread, and Charles Bukowski’s street life.
You know that what you write is only a mouse’s tit to what you experience or feel. You know you suck, even if you’ve won the Pulitzer. The world thinks of you as useless, withered arms. Critics and reviewers perch on your gullet, misinterpret what you write, and call you a pinko-communist-devil-worshipper-confessional-retro-hippie-irreverent-she-doesn’t-have-her-MFA-oh-my-God! jackass, even if you write about wrens in your peach tree.
Some would-be poets just want fame. If fame is your primary motive, the work is doomed to last a sizzling steak nano second. Even if you are famous, you have to work at second and third jobs. And when you are invited to read, you are rarely, if ever, reimbursed for your airfare. You don’t care; you’re just so happy someone actually wants to hear what you have to say. You’d crawl through the desert with scorpions hanging from your ass and a rattlesnake from your lower lip.
Once there, you’re lucky if the Poetry Society puts you up in a Motel 6, and you can take home a stash of tiny shampoo bottles.
People like to quote you, but absolutely no one follows your wisdom. This "admire-but-don't-do" has gone on since the very first poet.
You know you will never write the ultimate poem because then all the mysteries of life would be solved--and that ain’t happenin’. You settle for that ugly word "penultimate," strive for sublime, and catch delirium at the word publishable. However, getting a poem published is like asking a magnolia blossom to--you know--in a bucket.
Your poet colleagues hate you and stab you in the back with freshly-sharpened nibs. The truly vicious poets write only with real ink; they do that unconsciously because they believe they are the only real poets. Poet colleagues do sometimes praise your work but never buy your books. Friends rarely buy your books; they wait for you to give them one. But they are always one of the ten people at the signing, they insist on your autograph, and they give you a pat on the back and a goofy, parental smile. You have to love them.
People who do buy use your books as coffee table decorations, to prove they are sophisticated, "MFA-in" (provided the press is "in"), or they are "intellectuals" and/or "spiritual."
You get invited to parties as an awkward kind of status symbol (especially to yourself), then get ignored because everyone thinks you talk like they think you write. You become the elephant in the room; the elephant reading from the Upanishads. Some poets say being a poet gets you more sex, but it's never done that for me. (Perhaps they thought I made love like they thought I wrote.)
You just get deconstructed, down to the smelly, crude paper fiber, and, finally, moldy in the back of the Library of Congress, the Grand Mausoleum of All Published Works. I picture it like the warehouse in the first Indiana Jones movie, where the Ark of the Covenant is stored.
Finally, a poet is like a sensitive tourist with a camera. The poet is taking so many tunnel-vision pictures and extracting meaning, she forgets to enjoy the light from the Bosporus at apple tea time; and, when she returns home, she has no clear idea of where she’s been, except inside her own head or in those illegible scrawls on bits of paper in her pocket, full of lint and a torn ticket stub to a harem tour in the Topakai Palace she does not remember.
So, maybe I should poke my eyes out with a brooch and become a literal blind prophetess who has some true inner sight only (or maybe just be the self-involved, whining person I’ve always been).
I could sit under a hemlock tree where would-be gurus would come for enlightenment, though I would just good-naturedly hoot at the enormity of their mistake. Plus, my lack of bathing would drive them away--if not the hoards of gnats and mosquitoes. I could beg with a little wooden bowl, and people could step on me or kick me and call me the ultimate fake and yell, Get a job! I think all that would feel much better than being a poet.
Still you send out your credentials, as many as fit into a “brief resumé": To Hide in the Light (Elk River Review, 1998); Dances in Straw with a Two-Headed Calf (Elk River Review, 2000) . . . etc. that ends up shredded by a would-be publisher because your "brief resumé" is five pages long. You should have known the reading at Aunt Ida's death bed should have been omitted, along with your publication in the 7th-grade literary magazine, Reflections.
All credentials are meaningless, anyway, if no one reads your work. And possibly, even if they do.
Perhaps the meaning to being a poet lies in the act of writing the poem itself, the awareness for one blessed moment that you have perceived, with fuzzy insect antennae, something far greater than yourself and that you are the conduit, not “the talent,” to express what is the exquisite, painful confusion, joy, horror, delightful surprise, and mysterious embrace of being human. And the knowledge that the sublime moments of being are within reach.
Maybe the poet’s value, like the caveman's who first drew on walls, lies in her ancient reminder: I am. I exist. I am here. Or the validation: What you feel is part of being, for better or worse. In this moment, we are not alone. In this moment, we are one.
At that moment, the poet is to be envied, as much as any human being that truly hears.
Causes Bonnie Roberts Supports
The Southern Poverty Law Center, The National Resource Defense Council, The ACLU, Doctors without Borders, Save Darfur