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Poet Identity

Guest Blog. This essay was written by a recent student-friend, as he explores one of those areas by which we establish meaning in our lives, our self-ascribed identities. For my generation, this might have been best captured by the reflection on "What do you do?" from the 8.31.2018 blog Working It Out, but for a Millenial like Andrew, this is more what it is like for a bright college graduate on a path to finding himself. It's not so much about the "identity politics" of what group to which you might belong, nor so much about what you do, but who you are and who you want to be, both for youirself and others.

How many poems must I write to become a poet?

Perhaps one is sufficient. One poem proves the successful transition from intention into actuality. Many people fail to take this first step, as doing so betrays a certain temerity or arrogance to become what one is not. Or perhaps, through the trials of a lifetime, one becomes what one truly is – writing a poem then does not reflect a change in the ontological set of one’s being or identity but rather a shift in one’s self-knowledge.

Truly, though, let’s be serious for a moment. Not everyone who writes a poem may convincingly claim to be a poet. What if the poem sucks terribly? So bad it clears the room. If one, after such dreadful utterances, then persists, “Given that I am a poet speaking poetry, these bumpkins that flee must be dull and piteously uncultured!” One then proves oneself more of an asshole than a poet. If instead one learns from this experience, continues to write and improve, and one day returns and captivates the crowd with words beautiful and sensitively possessed, then one might dare to call oneself poet. And, in this age of currency-instantiated value, if one ever publishes for pay, one may safely regard oneself as poet.

So one poem is the minimum. But the more accurate answer is something like “as many as it takes.” Takes for what, precisely? For the aspirant to become a poet proper? We then beg the question and so obscure the path forward.

Memory returns me to the first time I read a poem to a sober living audience. Consider my relief when the listeners neither ran, scoffed, nor spontaneously combust, but instead seemed to genuinely enjoy my reading. Leaving the venue, my steps were light, and I felt I was then becoming something I was not before. But when I reached my home and sank into my chair my mood flagged. If only some Secret Poetry Authority would bust a hole in my living room wall, dive-roll in, and stamp “Not A Fraud” on my forehead. Then I would know for certain if something essential had changed.

And yet, here I am, confused as ever before. Perhaps to relieve this confusion I ought to examine identity more generally. Here are some initial thoughts:

Identity can be static or dynamic across time. I have always been a son, but it seems I must become a poet. I was a student, but now I am in the workforce. I am now and plan to always be a learner.

Identity can be intrinsic or extrinsic. It is part of my character to be patient and understanding with people who suffer mental health problems. This is an internal striving. However, the group home I work at pays me to fill that role, introducing an external impetus.

Identity can be more or less situational. My gender is certainly male, but is expressed somewhat differently when competing in poker with a group of guys than when I make myself emotionally available for a friend going through hard times. Further, nothing about being a man prevents me from donning a dress and performing in drag. Conversely, my sex as a man locks me into a given reproductive role spanning my entire life, regardless of context.

There are surely more characteristics of identity to explore. But let’s pause, as there are already major problems with my thought on the matter. “Son” as an identity at first appears to be stable and enduring across my entire lifespan. However, I could conceivably murder my father and mother, change my last name, burn all records of the past, and restart life in a new city telling people I was an orphan all my life. Sure, someone still gave birth to me, but the nature of the identity has changed beyond recognition.

I said it was part of my character to be patient and understanding with those in poor mental health. What evidence is there of this? Sure, I am often patient and understanding, and I certainly aspire to be, but there are many days where I fall short. Can I claim the identity on some days but not on others? If so, I stand on shaky ground claiming that identity as something intrinsic to my being. Perhaps it is an aspiration, nothing more. As for the extrinsic job title, we all know people who fill roles in name but not soul, sleepwalking from paycheck to paycheck. To what extent can an identity thrust on someone by circumstance yet bucked internally still be thought of as true identity?

The situational nature of identity is the most robust attribute I listed. Yet even here there lacks precision. How much contextual couching can an identity bear before it falls apart, its core hollowed out? If the number of days I don a dress began to outnumber those I wear slacks, would I cease to be a man? “Some men wear dresses.” Okay, but this is only a partial solution. I could continue to push the boundary, accepting and enacting more and more feminine qualities. I could even get surgery to change my appearance and eventually, with sufficient technological progress, be able to bear children. I could proceed in this way until nothing about my maleness were the same as it was before. Precisely when would I stop being a man? Is it something I decide for myself?

Let us clear the air. Identity is not something “out there” in the world that we can point to, with enduring properties that might be enumerated. This only leads to confusion – if we take identity too seriously in this way, we risk locking ourselves into cages of our own doing. Instead, identity is best thought of as a tool that exists in the minds of individuals to serve a purpose or set of purposes. The validity of the term is given by its usefulness. As such, an identity that outlives its use is best shed with as much grace as one can muster.

As far as I can see, identity is a communicative tool to both oneself and others about one’s past experience and future possibilities. It is a guide for action. If I claim to be a poet there may be no strict objective fact to the matter, and yet staking the claim may prove invaluable. Consider another household tool: The Hammer. A hammer may suggest a use, as function often follows form and there is ample cultural wisdom on good ways to use a hammer, but in truth there are nearly infinite uses. I can hammer nails, surely, but I can create hammer-themed found-object art to decorate my home. I can invent a game with targets where we spin around three times then throw towards the bullseye. I can use the head as an electrical conductor and the handle as kindling at my next barbecue. I have never actually hosted a barbecue but I can use a hammer as a fast-acting concussion generator to make you forget this fact.

The point is, I can use the label “poet” however I want so long as I do not shit myself when no one respects or believes me for it. If I call myself poet but never write another poem, other people are free to attempt to label me “poser” and I would be hard pressed to riposte. If I want to avoid this fate, I can study poets of old, learn their secrets, and steel myself for a journey into lands unknown with only my words and theirs to see me through. Thus, a near optimal use for the term “poet” presents itself: I have written poems that demonstrate some latent ability, and will do my best using all tools available to develop that ability and continue writing and sharing poetry until it no longer makes sense to do so (i.e. sudden death, that peculiar abdication of any semblance of taste that can occur when people become too comfortable with their passions). “Poet” becomes a shorthand for this intention. Or, rather, a growing nexus of intentions compresses into the identity that itself becomes graspable as a mental object, which “frees my hands” in a way to convert more energy into the actual task of writing poems. Ultimate efficiency would be to drop all labels and pretense and merely express myself with all the care and skill I have without recourse to limiting words like “poet” and “poem”. But, I am not that skilled and lack sufficient care, so, like most humans, I need to surround myself with reminders to live and become properly.

There are many benefits to seeing identity as a tool rather than as an enduring essence in your person, that is, something you are and always will be. If I need to put nails into a board, I am glad to have my hammer on hand. If I need to instead cut the board, I am less glad. Luckily, I have a big ol’ tool box with all sorts of gadgetry. I put down the hammer and grab the saw. Result: Still glad. When an identity ceases to function, drop it. Leave it be. There are many addicts who need to stop thinking of themselves as addicts. That is who you were. It is not who you need to continue to be. But it is neither simple nor easy. Perhaps a new identity needs to be forged, say, as someone capable of facing the fear and pain of each passing moment as all traumas of old gurgle to the surface like some evil black slime. Quick, reach for the pill or syringe that normally takes the pain away. Oh, wait – it is not there. You decided yesterday to not be an addict anymore. You are a badass motherfucker now.

Perhaps you do not believe this new identity and fail day after day. But each time you fail you learn a little more about yourself and gain skill and the incremental capacity to bear the burden of your life. You will need a support group. Perhaps you have not given enough energy to the identities brother, mother, or friend and need to begin to do so. Perhaps you burnt those bridges and now must blaze a new trail. Join narcotics anonymous. You may need rehab to manage the physical repercussions of breaking a chemical compulsion. “Addict” thus becomes “Recovering Addict.” In any case, whatever it is that you must do (and you are the person in the best position to know), you will have much greater chance of success if you view “addict” as an identity that served you well in the past but that serves you no more. Thank it for protecting you from pain. Turn away and become.

Letting go of deadwood identities is not easy. However, there is a proven method to develop the skill to break identification with each passing moment. This is meditation, developed to its fullest expression in Hindu and Buddhist traditions, but also extant in Christian and other Western modalities. There are many forms of meditation each with greater or lesser connection to some doctrinal core. One need not delve into religiosity to meditate (though for some people the symbolic, ethical, and metaphysical structure of religion can be helpful). At its most basic, meditation is simply the intention to pay attention to each moment as it passes into the next, letting go of all identifications and distractions. One technique is to watch each breath from genesis to extinction. At first, this will be nearly impossible as thoughts, emotions, imagery, and all other mind shenanigans try to trip you up big. Over time, however, you begin to notice that these sorts of things come on their own and will leave on their own if you cease holding so tightly. I am just a novice in meditation, but if you would like to learn more check out The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche if you are open to Buddhist tradition (though it is a good read in any case) or Sam Harris’ Waking Up if you are a rational skeptic.

I do not know how far calling myself a poet will take me, but I am filled with excitement for the journey. I wish you best as you continue yours. Peace and long life, fellow traveler.