Responsibilities of a Poet
Contrary to an apparently widely-held belief, the poet does have several significant responsibilities. A poet cannot simply be a free spirit, breaking all the rules without making new ones.
This is primarily because poetry is not simply any random collection of words on the page or in the air. Poetry needs to affect the reader reader (even if the reader is just the poet), he needs to pay attention to detail, and a poet may never discount language.
What makes a poet great? Beautiful words and language? A fresh idea or new take on things? Is it shock value? Is it something else? Or is it all of these things? A poet has the responsibility to decide how to become great, and then she needs to follow that path.
It is the poets who abandon any sort of method at all who are impossible and uninteresting to read. In the same way that free verse rejects traditional metrical restrictions but is never without its own meter, a poem that rejects any sort of tradition cannot exist without creating a new tradition of its own. The poet must be aware of what he is rejecting in order to truly create something of his own.
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Because of this, poets need to be educated about poetry’s past. In order to effectively express herself, the poet cannot simply write what she thinks on the paper. This has the effect of alienating the reader, which obviously does not allow the poet to have any sort of effect on the people who are reading her poetry.
Instead, poets must understand from whence poetry comes. They have to read Shakespeare and Wordsworth, e.e. cummings and Langston Hughes; whether they enjoy those writers or not, they will inevitably learn something about their own writing. A poet must learn about form versus content, about meter and line enjambment. How can he decide whether or not to employ different techniques or styles without understanding them in the first place? The best poets are the ones who learn and take from the past and then add themselves and their own personalities.
A good example of a poet who does exactly that was Federico Garcia Lorca. Writing in the early 1900s, he had many writers from whom to learn. When he was growing up in Spain, he studied the classic arts of playwriting and poetry. Because of this background, by the time he spent a year in New York from 1929 to 1930, he already had a secure idea of his own voice, both in conjunction with and in contrast to the writers the came before him.
In his work Poet in New York, Lorca writes in free verse with often no discernable rhyme scheme, but he did not write without a distinct influence of his own voice. While he did not consider himself a surrealist, he certainly incorporated an entirely new way of expressing ideas in a surreal way in his poetry.
Even though it is important not to discard an understanding of traditional poetry, it is also the poet’s job to have fun while she is writing and to use poetic expression with her work. Poetry is, after all, an art form just like any other. But just as a saxophonist would not expect to improvize without understanding the mechanics and theory behind jazz, the same must be true for the poet.