What is a poet? There are the laureates recognized by the crown. The few who gather a community or a following around them. Or at least those who have been published.
But what about the poets who had nothing? What about the opium addicts, the unpublished, and the unread? What about all those musty manuscripts in some creaking attic that we have yet to find?
As National Poetry Month comes to a close, I want to look at a few poets who struggled and suffered throughout their lives. All of these are poets who are part of our common imagination of the poet in some way. But some of them never would have expected that they would eventually be commonly anthologized or the subject of scores of books and articles.
1. Allen Ginsberg
Oh come on, this hipseaking Beat is a household name. His censorship trial is famous, and he sang with the Clash twice. But there was a time before “Howl” and “Kaddish” that Ginsberg was barely keeping it together. In 1948 he experienced auditory hallucinations of William Blake that he took as a personal calling to be a poetic prophet. At this time, he had lost Cassady and Kerouac was isolating himself while writing a novel. And no one in respectable Columbia University was prepared to listen to the excitable ramblings of a mystic.
Not knowing how to turn his mystical experience into verse, he relied on the formal style of the metaphysical poets, until William Carlos Williams turned him toward writing in everyday language. It was “Howl,” with its ecstatic mystic footnote, that was the breakout poem where he found his way to be a poet-prophet in his own voice.
Here’s one of his early poems that seems to touch on his experiences in mental institutions, including his own time and that of his mother.
A Meaningless Institution
I was given my bedding, and a bunk
in an enormous ward,
surrounded by hundreds of weeping,
decaying men and women.
I sat on my bunk, three tiers up
next to the ceiling,
looking down the grey aisles.
Old, crippled, dumb people were
bent over sewing. A heavy girl
in a dirty dress
stared at me. I waited
for an official guide to come
and give me instructions.
After awhile, I wandered
off down empty corridors in search of a toilet.
Dream 1948 (Published in Empty Mirror)
You can learn more about Ginsberg’s visionary poetics in Paul Portugés’s book.
2. Edwin Arlington Robinson
Robinson is the poet of portraits. You may have read some of his darkly comical poetry, like the commonly anthologized “Richard Corey” or “Minniver Cheevy.” Both portraits show men who don’t end well by the last line. You may be wondering how Teddy Roosevelt’s favored poet fits into this list, but Robinson worried about failure in his own life, predicting in his letters that “the chances are about ten to one that…my life will be a disappointment and a failure.”
And that same fear of failure found its way into his poems. Estelle Kaplan looks more into Robinson’s darkly optimistic philosophy in her intriguing study.
In his personal writing, Robinson creates an aesthetics of failure. Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, may be an inconsequential splash for Pieter Breughel and W. H. Auden, but for Robinson, he is an important icon who “made crashing an ideal” and the “earth be fairer for it.”
In a note on Thoreau, Robinson wrote that “we all know that many who have failed in their special attempt have worked harder and longer than many who have attained to that uncertain and often unsatisfying thing called success.” Ah, now I see why TR liked him so much.
3. Emily Dickinson
I’ve written before here about how Dickinson’s reclusive life can be read as the privacy of letter writing, but it still stands that she was called the Nun of Amherst for a reason. This is the poet who would meet people by handing them a few lilies and whispering, “These are my introduction.” The same Thomas Wentworth Higgins whom she “felt it shelter to speak to” confided in his wife that “I was never with anyone who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.”
Just take a look at the first paragraph of his 1891 Atlantic article about her letters:
Few events in American literary history have been more curious than the sudden rise of Emily Dickinson into a posthumous fame only more accentuated by the utterly recluse character of her life and by her aversion to even a literary publicity. The lines which form a prelude to the published volume of her poems are the only ones that have come to light indicating even a temporary desire to come in contact with the great world of readers; she seems to have had no reference, in all the rest, to anything but her own thought and a few friends. But for her only sister it is very doubtful if her poems would ever have been printed at all; and when published, they were launched quietly and without any expectation of a wide audience; yet the outcome of it is that six editions of the volume have been sold within six months, a suddenness of success almost without a parallel in American literature.
I’m glad that her sister was so persistent and that Higgins, even though he felt drained, gave her shelter.
4. Gerard Manley Hopkins
Hopkins is the epitome of poetic failures. I’ve written before how he instilled in me reverence for the mystery of failure here. Even his close friend Robert Bridges (one of those beautiful, successful, Laureate types) thought his poetry was completely inaccessible. I mean, just check out this 1914 encyclopedia entry about him:
While still at school he had written verses of distinctive merit but in his ardour as a novice he destroyed his poems, a single fragment surviving, and he wrote no more for nearly ten years. The poetry which he subsequently wrote at various periods until the year of his death is of a very high quality. It resembles the poetry of Crashaw in its exuberance of language, its lyric qualities, and its daring metaphors. The poems have never been collected, but many of them have been published in various anthologies such as Beeching’s “Lyra Sacra” and Miles’ “Poets and Poetry of the Century”.
Yeah, this second, shorter paragraph acknowledges he was a poet, and it sounds like he was a pretty good one, like the Baroque poet Richard Crashaw. But his poems are scattered in “various anthologies” and this entry is mainly a note about a marginal character of the Oxford Movement. At the same time, that’s what’s so delightful about this entry. We get to see that window of reception before Bridges published the first edition in 1918.
5. Geoffrey Chaucer
What am I thinking including the Father of English poetry in this list?! Surely a member of parliament could not conceivably be a failure. But this is Paul Strohm’s new argument in Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury. He presents a Chaucer who is marginal to the Ricardian court and maybe even a “mildly complicitous” bureaucrat in the corrupt wool customs of 14th century London. Such a Chaucer seems far from our image of the slippery and ironic poet of The Canterbury Tales.
In the closing months of 1386, Chaucer experienced a devastating cluster of reversals that has every appearance of defeat. But sometimes the grim particulars of a defeat can create a new opening, a fresh alternative. All these frustrations, this eclipse of career, this forced relocation, this abrupt termination of a London life that had suited him well will create the incentive for a new life through art. A new art requires a new audience, and Chaucer will seek and find one… This partially compromised and marginally successful factionalist and bureaucrat will set himself on course to become what he is for us now: a poet shaped by circumstance but who also found a way to place himself beyond circumstance, to become a poet for all time.
Like Chaucer’s Knight from The Canterbury Tales, all of these poets show us how to “maken vertu of necessitee.” Because, let’s just face it, we’re all entering into the mystery of failure in our own significant ways.