“I’m really more of a song and dance man.” Bob Dylan’s sass-in-a-glass reply to the question “Do you consider yourself a poet?” still sounds fresh. It gets its freshness first from the mystical mouth of its speaker and next from the fact that the identity he’s rejecting, that of the poet, still sort of stinks. Poets prance. Poets pine. Poets, pathetically, publish poetry. And yet poetry is what I intend to praise here.
Poetry doesn’t need you to know it’s important in order to be important to you. We grew up quoting Shakespeare, as oblivious to the fact that we were quoting anyone as his characters were to the fact that they were living in a play. Great poetry gets in the blood and boils there. You start to forget it wasn’t your blood to begin with, but it wasn’t. It was a transfusion. It was something you ate. I can think of no better example of this phenomenon than the back-and-forth between rappers Jay-Z and Cam’ron. As soon as one writes, “I’m not a writer / I’m a biter,” the other bites back with “I’m not a biter / I’m a writer.” Of course, the writing is the biting: Both are caught in a great circle of swallowing and spitting.
So far all we’ve heard are people claiming to be anything but poets — biters, song-and-dance men, the last of the unicorns. But do we believe them? Perhaps the deviousness of these denials is their undoing. In resisting the word “poet,” Dylan and Cam’ron must perform verbal runarounds that end up, of course, as pure poetry. Their denials become rhythms to walk to, their evasions become words to live by.
Poetry is in your mouth before you open it. But if it’s there always already and “before,” then what’s the value in outing poetry as poetry, and the poet as poet? If the poet remains a poet whether or not he calls himself one, then why mess with the word at all?
On this page there is printed an unforgivably beautiful poem: John Ashbery’s “As One Put Drunk Into the Packet-Boat.” At the beginning of the second stanza, the speaker of the poem says: “A look of glass stops you / and you walk on shaken: was I the perceived? / Did they notice me, this time, as I am, / Or is it postponed again?” I think Ashbery answers my question with his set of questions. We all want to be recognized, every once in a while, for what we really are. Let the look of glass stop you, or rather, look in the looking-glass: You are a poet.
Carina Del Valle Schorske is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. She is senior editor of the Yale Literary Magazine.
This column is part of the News’ op-ed page tribute to Poetry Month.