How Can You Call Yourself A Poet?
It is valid response is to ignore everyone, and keep doing what you do, regardless of notice, acclaim, rejection, or puzzlement. It has risks, and a price you might be willing to pay. Just stay your course and follow your inner voices, no matter what. Poet-painter Kenneth Patchen went his own way, never changing the center of his ideals or vision, struggling with it to make his art/poetry—and it is as difficult to separate his words from the images they appear with, as it is to regard WIlliam Blake's poetry without his printed illuminations. There are times when I feel as if Patchen repeats his message and style as though he were a one-trick magician; at other times he startles by overcoming even his own habitual tricks, and transcends his own limits. That's the risk of going off on your own, of course, or working in splendid isolation: your work might need a little more revision than you sometimes give it, so that it can more often rise above its own limits.
And there are those among the critical elite who would ask both Patchen and Blake, "How can you call yourself a poet? How can you call yourself an artist?" As is often the case, though, the poet doesn't call himself a poet, only other people do. A mistake both poets and critics regularly make is to believe that dialogue between their factions means anything, or has any substance. If the artist is often too inarticulate, the critics are too often egotistical.
As an artist, you never signed a contract demanding that you Explain Your Work—although many will demand that of you, without even knowing why the demand arises—and it's not your job to give lectures on your art, it's your job to keep making it. If you can lecture articulately about the concerns and instincts that arise, that your work sometimes encompasses, all the better—plain self-awareness is never misspent, unless it tries to cage one's own mysteries—but feeding the curiosity of the audience isn't in your job description. You're supposed to feed them your art, not your biography.
As a critic, your job is to help us understand, to explore, to respond, to discover, and to report back. This is best done when there's no personal agenda, no theoretical axes to grind, no fame of your own to engage. Critics get paid to write about creatives, not about themselves. In literary criticism, the quality most often lacking is humility. Grand pronouncements are given instead, sweeping overviews that might explain, but cannot contain. Who can contain Patchen or Blake within a simple critical assessment or single theoretical overview? No one; it cannot be done. Critics need to preserve their own first responses of high emotion to a work, be it awe or disgust, and not forget those first responses even if, in the end, they are not trustworthy. Critics are not bodiless intellects hovering above the created landscape, completely objective and emotionless—although I appreciate Salvador Dali's performance-art-like response to this assumption by always taking interviews yet rarely explaining a painting the same way twice. It doesn't hurt a critic to be reminded that they're also human, just as the artist is, and to admit that they've been wrong. A fixed opinion is a brick in the foundations of hell.
Creative ego can make you a target. If you wear "Poet" on your name-badge at a cocktail party at some hotel conference, don't be surprised when you're challenged. It may not even be your fault; but inevitably, some lout will dare you to prove it. If you demure, you're mocked, even though you haven't lost your centre. If you give in, you will risk always being kept onstage forever after, as some performing monkey, a creative light-switch to be turned on at whim. You will forever be expected to perform at some level of wit and danger as exemplified by Edmond Rostand's hero Cyrano de Bergerac, who tosses off exquisite verse as he duels a knave. Well, louts and knaves will oft surround you, Poet; it's a fact of life. You don't need to respond in kind; there are higher roads. And satire is often the best revenge, for the artist.
Is it better to keep silent, keep private, and do your creative soul-work in isolation, silence, and in secret? To avoid being a target of criticism? I don't know. I have mixed feelings. It's a balancing act, a dangerous one: If you fall too far of your centre of balance, you can tip into self-aggrandizing secret-keeping that makes you smug and proud in hiding, looking down on everyone else because you know something they don't. If you tip off-balance in another direction, you can end up being hungry for acclaim, hungry for recognition, hungry for attention of any kind in fact, and get lost among the cycles of fame and the forgotten.
Perhaps it's best to make your art public, yet keep your life private. Few things kill the muse like celebrity or intoxicated celebrity. Writing remains a solitary act, not a public performance. (With rare exceptions, such as Harlan Ellison occasionally writing a story in a bookstore window.) Painting can be a public act, but imagining what one sees on the finished canvas before applying one drop of paint remains a private act. (Again, there are rare exceptions of painters who could actually improvise, such as Keith Haring.) Music performance is a public act, but music composition and improvisation are not required to be; it's optional. What matters is the moment: losing oneself in the music, whether or not an audience is there.
Artists do need to feed their art, by getting away from it, from time to time. Obsessive self-absorption is almost guaranteed to lead to social retardation. Although you may, as an artist, need to be completely absorbed in your art in order to do it—rightly so—if you sacrifice all human contact for the sake of your art, it's all too easy to fall off a cliff. Artists are people, and people need to sit and have a beer with friends, even if they're other artists. At least periodically, you need to go off and do something completely unrelated to your art, or have a deep and fulfilling conversation of an evening in which no one, including you, talks about your art, not even once. Come up for air, everyone. Take a deep breath, and realize the world goes on, and will continue to go on, no matter what we do.
Critics, if similarly obsessed, lose perspective. One on level, art is the most important thing in the Universe—it echoes the action of Creation. Simultaneously, art-making is ephemeral and momentary and culturally-bound. A wise critic is always conscious of history, of context, and skeptical of the fashion-driven cycles of marketing hype. It's hard to take seriously any critic or reviewer who parrots the opinions of others, even those he or she agrees with. If you don't arrive at your conclusions via your own roads of independent assessment, don't expect me to be impressed. Critics are even better than artists at bullshitting the rubes: rhetoric is their valid tool, even if it is not always wisely used. Again, humility can save the day.
And art-making does have temporal and cultural limits and contexts, even as great art transcends time and space to become universal and timeless. I don't make art the same way Leonardo da Vinci did, because we have different tools, and live in different times. (Though what he could have done with Photoshop!) I have recently begun making photos of male nudes in my photography studio; after a hiatus in which I had no access to studio settings and tools, now I've made my own. In that, Leonardo and I share common ground, in both subject matter and the making of tools. La plus ça change, la pllus meme chose. I have in my pool of options everything Leonardo did, but also what the Abstract Expressionists and Surrealists did. Leonardo's genius was in part that he was an inventor, a maker, one who was able to create a tool or technique that was needed even if it didn't exist. I make no such claim for my own abilities, although I have learned a great deal from studying Leonardo.
Perhaps it's best to make your art public, yet keep your life private. That may be where the balance stands on point. To make no public proclamations of your own genius and originality—since most claims by artists are hubris, again with rare exceptions—but to just keep making your art, and let the verdict of history decide. Note, I say, to let history decide, and not the judgments of critics alive today who respond to your work, pro or con. Ignore that, if you ignore nothing else. Let your self-esteem be bound up only with how you feel a given work of art to be successful, on its own merit—not on what anyone else says about its merit. Measure your own work with ruthless honesty, though, and a skeptical, detached eye. You'll rarely experience loving your own favorite children as much as you do, for the same reasons.
Perhaps it's simple self-protection. Don't make a target of yourself, by calling yourself a Poet. Be circumspect. Be stealthy. Publish anonymously! Well, that's probably too radical for most poets: there are few who can detach so well from their ego-driven hunger for acclamation. (Note that I do not exclude myself from this pernicious tendency; although I do consciously strive to minimize it.) Your name may be your marketing, but don't let it be your branding, lest you begin to take yourself too seriously.
If your name is to be attached to your work, let it be done as the mark of a craftsman, a signature of quality workmanship, the mark of an artisan who seeks to be hired by other clients in future, to build their cathedrals as you have built the one you just keystoned and signed. Your mark is your your copyright, to be sure, and warranty against imitations of lesser quality.
Be an artisan rather than an Artist, be a poet rather than a Poet, be the stoneworker who can enter the cathedral, cock a gimlet eye, and say "I bloody did that!" with quiet pride, yet leave his mark hidden or entirely absent. We think of Leonardo now as a genius Artist; but he thought of himself as an artisan, a craftsman, an inventor; his impatience with the world was because the world was too slow, not because he believed himself to be too fast: he did everything he could, after all, to bring the world up to his own level, which is a sharing borne from loving the world as his home, not despising the world as its superior master.
Write your poetry, even if no one notices. But don't call yourself a Poet. You'll only be asked to prove it.