How a person becomes a poet is a mystery before which one must simply bow down. Perhaps one is born to it. Indeed, genetic preparations may have been under way for generations before the poet’s birth. Snippings and mixings of hereditary materials may have been exactly calculated by some higher hand, one’s hapless ancestors thrust together in otherwise unprofitable unions sheerly to produce the very poet one is. It could be that inevitable. It could be that grand and cruel. A person could be certifiably called, and of course this is an attractive theory, with religious overtones. It would be a ferocious religion, because so many generations would be used opportunistically, mined exclusively for their rhyme gene or their understanding of the caesura. But then, poetry is ferocious and opportunistic.
Or one may become a poet through an opposite process. Perhaps one is reduced to it. Instead of being the result of the refinement and purification of the blood until only poetic ichor runs, the poet may be the product of some cataclysmic simplification, much like the simplification that overtook the dinosaurs, wiping them out and leaving the cockroaches. Both cockroach and poet are hardy little survivors, quick and omnivorous.
But in any case, such speculations regarding the origin of the poet feast upon the antique and the hideous—always a pleasure, but quite unhelpful to the actual poet in youth. For this is a fact: Though a person may be absolutely destined to be a poet, the person doesn’t altogether understand this at first. For a long time the person just feels silly.
It is very like the bewilderment felt by the early evolutionary predecessor of the anglerfish, back before this strange fish had undergone the “five hundred separate modifications” (Stephen Jay Gould’s estimate) that it took to develop the fishing lure it now dangles before its cavernous mouth.
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As in the case of this early anglerfish, the young poet feels ill-formed, but with glimmers of something yet to be articulated. This condition can go on throughout life, and, in truth, does. For how can the anglerfish ancestor jump ahead to a more satisfying form where the lure actually works? He cannot. And how can the poet evolve beyond the comical, partial creature she is? She cannot. And still, she cannot live indefinitely without forming an opinion regarding immanence and glimmers.
I wonder if other poets can say how they became poets, not in terms of the imponderably remote sources of the gift or when they got a publishing break, but can they recall a particular moment when they felt themselves say yes to the lifelong enterprise? It always surprises me that I can name such a moment. I don’t see myself as a person who has “moments.” The circumstances were picturesque and dramatic in a way foreign to my desert-bred habits.
In 1976, at the age of 30, I was bicycling across the United States. I had been feeling all the tell-tale symptoms of the poetic calling for a number of years, but was resisting it because I didn’t like the part about being utterly exposed, inadequate, foolish, and doomed. Still, poetry kept commandeering my mind. So the bicycle trip was 4,000 miles to say yes or no to poetry.
For a long time it didn’t seem to be working.
Then came a morning, many hundreds of miles into the rhythm of riding, going up a long, high pass in the Colorado Rockies, when I felt my mind simply lose its edges. The pines swept through my mind, my mind swept through the pines, not a bit strange. All at once I no longer had to try to appreciate my experience or try to understand; I played with the phrase the peace that passeth understanding like turning a silver coin in my fingers. And with the peace-beyond-the-struggle-to-understand came an unprecedented freedom and power to think.
My brain was like a stunt kite; I held it by only a couple of strings, but I could ask anything, absolutely anything, of it. I tried some sample stunts, and then I asked the question: Shall I be a writer?
It was the one question of my whole life, but I asked it with no sense of weight, as though it were casual: Shall I be a writer?
I don’t know where the answer came from, but it wasn’t what I expected. I suppose I expected an evaluation of my talents and chances of success. What I heard was, Do you like it?
I had never heard anything so right. Yes; I did like it, that was all there was to it. I laughed and laughed and laughed.