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Why Do You Dismiss Poetry as a "Hobby"? It's a Profession Too

09/17/2013 07:51 EDT | Updated 11/17/2013 05:12 EST

Last week, TIFF premiered Kill Your Darlings, a film about murder, poetry and the coming-into-adulthood of Beat Generation leaders, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Though annual sales of poetry books pale-to-the-point-of-transparency in comparison to movie tickets, Kill reaffirms that the image of the poet as non-conformist and social revolutionary still demands respect in the popular imagination.

This is true outside of fiction as well. In a recent article mourning the great loss of Seamus Heaney, Grainne Gillis beautifully reminds us of the very real relevancy of poetry in political debate. For Gillis, poetry, and the poetic, extends beyond, as well as up from, the page to resonate as "an absolute dedication to fighting for what was beautiful in life, and ultimately truthful and meaningful to the human experience."

And yet, as much as poets may be our visionaries and prophets, in our society, being a poet is not a profession. Which isn't just to say that it's nearly impossible to make a decent salary by writing poems. There seems to be something about poetry that's considered... quaint. According to Alan King, someone who does make his living from writing and writing-related activities, when introducing himself as a poet, people on average respond, next to asking him what his "nine-to-five is," by nostalgically recalling such childhood (childish?) dallying of their own.

As King says, "poetry is kind of seen as a hobby." A hobby is something someone does in her own, quiet time, divorced from the pressures of public life and economic exchange. It's something done from a place of presentness, non-deferred meaningfulness, its value wrapped up in its process. Hobbies are private affairs that don't call for defense or garner explosive consequences, but do round out the selfhood of an individual. The military leader fishing. The great scientist baking. These are images of people coming back to their most basic conditions as basic people with likes and dislikes and time to fill.

The allocation of poetry to hobby seems to rob it of the respectability and seriousness found in Gillis' approach. And yet, there is something that rings true in this allocation too. Heaney himself, according to his biographer Blake Morrison, took "on the mantle of public spokesman, someone looked to for comment and guidance. Yet... also show[ed] signs of deeply resenting this role, defending the right of poets to be private and apolitical, and questioning the extent to which poetry, however 'committed,' can influence the course of history." Isn't there, after all, something inherently private about poetry? Something about it that always retains a taste of the personal? The vulnerable? Something that draws us back to small moments? Isn't that what poetry is known for -- capturing the largeness of small moments? But why does that seem to negate the momentum and power of poetry-as-political-engagement?

These questions are important to me because I write poetry, but also because I wonder if poetry's confused standing in our popular imagination reflects more on how we have come to approach politics and hobbies than poetry itself. This is a possibility I'm raising, not one I have a definite argument for or against. However, it seems to me that a good place to go deeper into this issue is through the lens of Canadian poetry, that a version of this conversation has been uniquely happening here for some time now. At least, Canadian poetry opened up this line of thought for me.

Though I have always admired certain individual Canadian poets, I didn't give too much thought to Canadian poetry as a distinct tradition until, after moving back to Toronto from New York City last year, a friend introduced me to the work of Sue Sinclair. From there I began more consciously seeking out other Canadians to read. Time and again, I was attracted by a distinct sense of comfort the poet's here seem to have with poetry's out-of-placeness, and a soft but solid confidence they showed when moving between singular and collective relevancy.

One of the poets I became most interested in is Jan Zwicky, Sinclair's former teacher and fellow editor at Brick Books. Zwicky is not only a poet, but also a philosopher whose work attempts to bridge the gap between analytic and more artistic modes of thought and expression. Her 1992 book, "Lyric Philosophy," has become a kind of manifesto for what is now a growing field of study in Canada known as lyrical scholarship.

Zwicky, in "Wisdom and Metaphor," defines lyricism as "thought whose eros is coherence." For Zwicky, a lyrical way of approaching the world means allowing likes and dislikes to "resonate" with each other towards some sense of an organic (and ultimately unattainable) whole, as opposed to ordering experiences and objects into categories and hierarchies. Poetry, especially in its reliance on metaphor, and it's watchful eye on the seemingly unimportant contingencies of life, is, for Zwicky, an essential lyrical way of thinking.

In her article "Wisdom," Sue Sinclair brings out the ethical implications of a lyrical outlook. What emerges is an ethic of attentiveness characterized by the effort "to be sensitive to place - to see how things hang together and to respond appropriately." She later writes: "To know the world is to grasp something of its ontological structure, its shape, and to do so requires an attention that becomes an ethical act."

While I was in Montreal recently, Sinclair very kindly met me for coffee and to discuss this interplay between poetry, philosophy and ethics. One of the things I admire so much in Sinclair's poetry is how well she personifies objects, nature, and events, calling out to their loneliness rather than dwelling on her own. This escapes confessional solipsism, while still giving the reader insight into the most basic and solitary existential experiences. When I asked her about this, she linked it back to a matter of attentiveness, a practice of trying to grasp what she sees without subsuming it, to "endure [the other's] loneliness as a form of care."

This is strikingly different than the dominant American ethic, rooted in Mill's harm principle, which places averting our attention - giving space, not intruding, not over-stepping boundaries, etc. - top of the list of inter-personal acts we should do for each other. It's this notion of "live and let live" that regulates our private sphere and separates it from the political where we are accountable, called to attention, regarding each other. However, an ethic of attentiveness is not about advocating for the application of political attentiveness in the private sphere, this would just lead to the collapse of autonomy through the regulation and legalization of all aspects of our lives. Just the opposite, what Sinclair exemplifies in her poetry is an attentiveness that acknowledges, sees and responds, without inhibiting the other, that is at once forgiving and firm, beautiful and sharp. Such an attentiveness is not quaint: to see and be seen is a demanding and emotionally complex interaction. But it is as self-reflective an experience as it is an exposing one, and occurs on such a subjective level that it is understandably an awkward addition in the hustling world of politics and policy. It seems, rather, to divide the situation along different lines.

And with that invites us to rethink, or think outside, some of these divisions we so easily take for granted ourselves.

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