How Free is the Poet?

The poet is only as free as the system he or she operates within.

Ideally one would like to see poetry as the ultimate expression of notions of freedom and individuality. When all else is closing in, the prisoner will express him or herself with a dying line writ in blood on the dungeon wall. At least, this was how I perceived it when I began writing poetry. In fact, one of my earliest poems was called “Freedom”, now lost, but I recall it went something along the lines of “I write lines on the prison walls with the stub of a smuggled pencil . . . ” But poetry is also the tool of a collective consciousness, and this is why it is so often used as a celebration, expression, or cry for help, by groups of people. This so-called poetry of protest, or poetry of revolution, is a claim for the individual via collective consciousness, and one could argue the ultimate expression of the poet’s freedom. However, we confront schisms within the meaning of “freedom”, and its relative value. I think it’s interesting, however, to actually quote a poet of revolution, Vladimir Mayakovsky, who, in How are Verses Made? still lays claim to the independence of the poet: “I make this reservation: establishing rules is not in itself the aim of poetry, otherwise the poet turns into a scholar exercising his powers in formulating rules for non-existent or useless things and propositions. For example, it wouldn’t be much use to make up a rule about how to count stars while riding a bicycle.” He goes on to establish the difference between poetry and society by adding: “A proposition which demands formulation, demands rules, is thrust upon us by life. Methods of formulation, the aim of the rules, are defined by class and the needs of our struggle.” Of course, being the laureate of the Revolution, Mayakovsky is quick to establish the link between poet and society, in fact, the need for the poet and society to serve each other in the name of the Revolution.

But freedom is a relative thing. Jean-Paul Sartre, in Existentialism & Humanism, quotes Dostoievsky’s writing, “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted”. Does this notion diminish notions of freedom or does it make freedom absolute? If one considers the doctrine of free will as opposed to that of predestination does the former denote freedom and the latter the absence of freedom? Or is it all relative? What I’m trying to get at is that the poet is as free as the system of beliefs that directs his or her poetry. This may seem somewhat empiricist, but on the flip side we might find a similar argument and similar conclusion. Sartre, continuing, writes: “For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom. Nor on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimise our behaviour.”

On a more corporeal level, one might consider the writer Malcolm Lowry. Primarily known as a writer of fiction, especially of the great novel Under the Volcano – his poems are also worth looking at. There is something Melvillesque about his poetry that I find attractive. Lowry was a notorious dipsomaniac, in fact Under the Volcano charts a day in an alcoholic’s life, a man at least lacking the freedom of choice over his addiction. I don’t wish to enter into a debate about the nature of alcoholism, but suffice to say it affected the pattern of his life in a profound way. In his poetry he expresses this supremely. The form and notion of the poem suggest a freedom for him to express his sense of a lack of freedom. But this of course doesn’t make the poet free, unless it be in the moment of composition. Extending this further, one might also suggest that once a poem becomes public, the poet becomes a prisoner of the reading, especially in the post-modern context of the reader being responsible for a text’s meaning, and worth. Getting back to that Lowry poem, I should say that it’s not one of his better efforts, but it makes the point:


TrinityImprisoned in a Liverpool of self

I haunt the gutted arcades of the past.

Where it lies on some high forgotten shelf

I find what I was looking for at last.

But now the shelf has turned into a mast

And now the mast into an uptorn tree

Where one sways crucified twixt two of me.