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Poetry Guide: Poets

Poet is a term applied to a person who composes poetry, including extended forms such as dramatic verse. Poets, like any artist, exist within a cultural and intellectual tradition and generally write in a specific language, but the qualities which comprise good poetry are to some extent timeless and address issues common to all humanity.

In the English language, poets often considered to be some of the very best include Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, and T.S. Eliot. In the Western tradition, Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Goethe round out a basic list. In world poetry, Li Bai, Du Fu, Basho, and Omar Khayyám complete one defensible canon. Unfortunately, the very definition of a canon is political and personal, and so no objectivity can be pretended to. For a young poor African-American New Yorker, Patricia Smith may very well be the foremost poet who ever lived. An Australian might see the work of Banjo Paterson as epitomizing universal human values. The French may demand the inclusion of Baudelaire; a gay person, Allen Ginsberg. No matter how large or small of a group is defined, the list of definitive poets would change, just as the notion of poetry itself cannot be strictly defined. Perhaps the best approach is simply to rely on numerous inclusionist lists:

Bad poets are sometimes called poetasters and what they write is sometimes termed doggerel.

Life of a poet

Any five-year-old making up a nonsense rhyme is to some degree a poet in the oral tradition. To be generally recognized as a poet, however, one needs to create work that receives widespread distribution and study. Certain correlations and characteristics stand out in the biographies of the major poets. First, most poets come from an haute bourgeois (upper-middle) class or lower-upper class background. Academics speculate that this may be so because ordinary middle-class people aspire to increase or maintain their social standing, whereas the aristocracy become involved in politics and power. This particular social standing (high-middle/low-high) allows for an elevated education, access to social knowledge of the very powerful, yet also sufficient connexion to ordinary life so as to understand the basic feelings of the poor and alienated as well as the experiences of the common man. Perhaps no combination is more fruitful to developing a broad, critical understanding of the human condition.

The biographies of poets typically include as well some sort of personal or identity alienation. Homer, of course, was reportedly blind and his appellation suggests that he was the son of captured prisoners-of-war, and thus ineligible for full participation in the political life of his state. Virgil was of non-Roman descent, and actively promoted (and perhaps subverted) the concept of a universal, mixed-blood Rome in his work. Currents of homosexuality, pedarasty, or other deviant sexualities are clearly evident in both the works and days of Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Ginsberg, and many other poets. Conversely, deviant political ideologies mar history's reception of such greats as Ezra Pound (who made propaganda broadcasts on behalf of fascist Italy) and T.S. Eliot (whose anti-Semitic inclinations are well-documented). See creativity theory for more research into how creativity proceeds out of the "gaps" and through the conflation of different intellectual currents.

Once they have established their name, poets, through their connexion to the eternal, often fully ascend into the ranks of the aristocracy, although continued identification and membership in bohemia is also not unknown. Today, there are a grand total of zero poets who are self-maintaining themselves entirely in the marketplace, just as history itself includes only a very limited number of examples, even for short periods of poet lives. Patrons and the state have long been the solution to this particular problem, including through such institutions as the poet laureate.

Poets and society

Perhaps no other occupation demands so much thought for so little output, epitomized in the Japanese haiku tradition, which involves production of seventeen syllable poems. Even in other traditions including thousand-line poems, a poet's total lifetime output might fill only two or three volumes. For this reason, poets occupy a peculiar position in society, even when compared to other artists. A painter might easily find work producing architectural drawings or caricatures. Other creative writers can work on industry trade journals or grant proposals. Musicians can busk, score sound for movies or videogames, perform at weddings, or otherwise earn a living in addition to their creative side projects. Poets, however, tend to be either on the fringes of or at the very center of their culture. Until they achieve prominence, they are stereotypically poor or low in prestige. Such a distinction even holds within the context of a specific institution: the "poet" of a given high school or college class is often a moody, introverted individual, disconnected from mainstream social life. However, poets who receive recognition from authority suddenly find themselves the very spokesperson of their generation or group.

Because of this "most very low; a few very high" dynamic, the practice of poetry itself is oftentimes a hobby or side activity rather than the central focus on an individual's life. In the tradition of courtly love, a knight would become a poet only when inspired by his lady love. After having his initial advances rejected, he would then become very moody and exclaim how close he felt to death. He might then produce a number of usually very poorly-written verses (or find a skilled friend to write them for him), before eventually recovering his will to live and returning to his knightly duties (only in which he could ever hope to win honours and the heart of his love). Full-time poets of remarkable skill might be maintained by a lord or by royalty, but the average knight was only a poet for brief period of his life, if ever so.

In the east, poets were similarly maintained by royal patronage, and those of high birth were expected to develop this skill alongside many others. Within the tradition of Japanese chivalry, bushido, Japanese knights, known as samurai, were expected to become poets only once: right before death. Thus, the tradition of love poems does not exist in Japan, but the quantity and quality of death poems is renowned.

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