Is a “real” poet (whatever “real” means) born, or can a poet be “made” — can a poet be developed somehow? Kind of late for me to get into this discussion, I would guess, but I’ve been corresponding with the poet Wendy Battin recently (May 2012), and she wrote, “I'm just a poet, not a prosody scholar. I've consulted your Book of Forms for decades, but I rarely publish in traditional forms. They've always been exercises for me, and I usually abandon them when I find the heart and trajectory of the poem. One of the great unwashed, in other words.”
I replied, Just because you don't "know" what you're doing, Wendy, doesn't mean you're not doing it.
P. S. Learn what you're doing so well you don't have to think about it.
“Oh, I know what I'm doing,” she wrote back. “I had the luck of good education and great books, and the knowing is knowing what parts of those count. I have my scholarly pursuits, but those are the things I needed to learn, not the ones I was born to know and sense. I'm speaking from the vantage of 59, but it hasn't changed much since childhood.”
And that’s how we got into the subject of whether poets are made or born. Obviously, it’s not a question in Wendy’s mind — she knows she was “born” a poet because she has been doing it “since childhood.” Wendy was born a poet, and that’s that. But so was I: I don’t recall when I began writing, but I do remember that what I liked to do was read, and I read everything. If I liked it, I was likely to imitate it. I loved “Jabberwocky,” for instance, so in high school I wrote this:
THE DEATH OF THE OLD WAMBLE DOG
And glying came the wamble dog
Through yellow floods of dimble trees.
Along the way he flaffled at
Grand hordes of ifferary fleas.
“Aha!” cried he, gapflumpf with glee,
“Bewordling there, who can that be
Standing beside the rordle sea
And waiting lorily for me?”
His flaffle tail stood tall and straight
As he approached, with breath abate,
The black-cloaked figure on the shore:
‘Twas Mother Goose and nothing more
Delarling in a tarn of gore
With story books and rhymes galore
And tales you’ve never heard before,
Bound up within a silken noose.
So up he glyed with panting breath
(For he was old, and Mother Goose
Is know to grownups, too, as Death).
The wamble dog will gly no more,
For now he frondles Stygian lore,
And life’s short game, for him, is o’er
Since death has evened up the score.
The difference between Wendy Battin and me, though, is that once I had written a poem “off the top of my head,” I wanted to know what it was that I had done, so I would go back through it and try to figure that out; therefore, I got into “prosody” and “poetics” as well as just words, their meanings, ambiguities, and sounds. In doing this, of course, I not only figured out what I had done, but what Lewis Carroll had done as well, and once I had done that, I could talk about both poems and show other people how to do the same things. I made a career of it, in fact.
But who came up with the conundrum in the first place? I wouldn’t have bet on John Clare (1793-1864), the English bumpkin poet from Northamptonshire, who, according to Wikipedia, wrote, "An ancient Latin proverb, poeta nascitur, non fit,” meaning, "A poet is born, not made." Poor (literally) uneducated John; he must have been a “born” poet:
R.I.P. JOHN CLARE*
July 13, 1793-May 20, 1864
The poorest poet of his age
Or any other, he took his page
From a birch, and from despair
Stole the madness of John Clare.
But nobody seems to know precisely where to find the original of the proverb he quoted. I would have guessed it had been a product of the 19th century, but my money would have been on an American rather than on a Briton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, because refusing to make the process of poetic composition conscious is an American phenomenon, not ordinarily a European one. Joe (X. J.) Kennedy got it exactly right in his “Ars Poetica” — “The goose that laid the golden egg / Died looking up its crotch / To find out how its sphincter worked. / Would you lay well? Don’t watch.”
Of course, Joe’s poem is in the form of an epigram, a perfect iambic tetrameter rhymed quatrain. If he had been a Medieval Celtic bard rather than a modern one, before he was initiated into the bardic orders Joe would actually have had to pass the equivalent of a Ph.D. oral examination and show that he could extemporize, say, in the twenty-four official Welsh meters…or their Irish equivalents — one can find this information in that Book of Forms of which Wendy says she is a fan.
I’ve written elsewhere on this blog of my rip-off of Poe’s “The Raven,” a poem I analyzed first, before I imitated it, and if the reader wishes, she or he may check it out. But there is one poem that I wrote in high school, when I was sour sixteen, that I have analyzed over and over during these past sixty years, “Wutchugonnado,” below, and I have never been able to figure out exactly what the prosody is, even though I have no doubt I hear an Indian tom-tom beating away, and I had no prototype on which to model the poem — certainly Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” sounds nothing like it; some of Vachel Lindsay comes close, though, and he wrote in podic prosody rather often. So I stand with Wendy on this one, unless she or someone else can tell me what meters I used:
(Listen to Lewis Turco read his poem Wutchugonnado)
A fable of the noble savage
Wutchugonnado by the brookside,
Squaw at his side,
Crow caw overhead,
Speckled fish on the speckled riverbed,
Sat in the painted sun,
Thoughts on Wutsicumminto,
Wutsicumminto, his son.
Dappled ripples lap-lapped
At the mottled clay bank,
Shadows sank floating logs;
Thoughts were driftwood,
Thoughts were braveness muscled in
Thoughts were stone-tipped,
Thoughts were crushed dreams,
Dead schemes, sere themes
In the painted sun.
Wutchugonnado dreamt of
Savage hunt love,
Land of moccasin's pad-pad
On the forest trail;
Dreamt of clear eye,
Glowing-coal smoke, starlit night cloak,
Solemn peace pipe, flame on cheek bones -
Dreamt of these and many more things:
Of his offspring Wutsicumminto,
Of his son, his warrior son,
Bronzed and free
In the white man's factory.