A moderately recent episode of Criminal Intent reminded me of just how far off the radar poetry seems to be for most people. (Not that it was news – hell, I once sparked a poem off someone’s attempt to come to grips with being faced with an actual poet, and in a confined space too!) (As I recall, the guy gulped, and said something along the lines of “So, you’re a Poet … how very … yes … What … what exactly … do you do?” (Before or after the virgin sacrifice?) Sigh!)
It’s strange, isn’t it? I’d like to think it’s some sort of collective memory of the glory days of bards flyting, making someone who’d behaved badly immortal in all the wrong ways … Or maybe a hangover from Lord Byron being described as “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know” by his erstwhile lover, Lady Caroline Lamb.
It’s as though there’s this expectation that (if male) you’ll be a druggie, addled, rampantly promiscuous bastard. If female, you’ll be pale, thin, vegetarian and loopy, drifting through life with a vague smile and an air of unworldliness. I once saw a very apt cartoon – a young man with a gun was holding a crowded bank hostage. His demands? “To read you my poems!” Sigh! (And then there was the infamous Vogon Poetry Torture from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy …)
So many of the poets I know described their decision to write poetry seriously (as opposed to the seemingly universal habit of penning a few errant verses that are never meant for public consumption) in the same way – as “coming out”. I can remember how much nerve it took me to tell my husband’s family that that was what I was doing/going to do. (My own family had been presented with the prospect by my grandmother on a regular basis since I was four or so, so it was no surprise to them.) The doing was – and still is – sheer joy, but the telling was another thing altogether. Even now I tend to refer to myself as a writer, rather than a poet, when I’m in casual conversation with someone I don’t know. Answering the polite “What do you do?” with the P-word tends to do to conversation what Acme products used to do to Wile E. Coyote …
But maybe I’m being too cynical. Perhaps I should look at the “Coming Out” aspect of it in an older sense of the word – as in “making one’s society debut”. (Still in high-heels-and-lipstick territory.) There were a handful of girls each year when I was at school who did the whole Débutante Ball thing (which was separate to the official School Ball for senior students etc). My inner feminist is affronted by the concept (announcing that you are now “available” and “suitable” for marriage! And the rest of us aren’t?!), but the girls who did it all seemed to enjoy themselves. None of them quit school to get married or anything of that ilk.
(Thinking about it, I was the first one to get married …)