So Ireland has a new president. Last Thursday the public hit the polling booths and resoundingly voted for Labour candidate Michael D. Higgins. When the news broke journalists and bloggers alike tried to find a nice handy soundbite to stick our president elect into. “Veteran politician”, “humanitarian”, “short”, “elderly”, many labels were bandied about. The one that seems to have raised most eyebrows however is “poet”.
Now for those not familiar with President Michael D’s literary back catalogue, he’s well known in the west of Ireland, where he’s from, as something of a poet. He’s not one of Ireland’s Nobel Literature Prize winners and he’s unarguably kept the day job as an academic and politician, but he has also published several collections of poetry with a couple of different publishers. No one is making anything up when they say the guy is a poet. He’s even done poetry readings.
A couple of days ago The Guardian published an opinion piece by British poet Carol Rumens. In the piece titled “Michael D. Higgins is No Poet” she dissects a poem of his the Guardian had printed as being apt on the day the result of the vote was announced. It’s quite a hatchet job and it’s been doing the rounds on Twitter, as you might expect. A couple of people have asked me what I think of the soon to be presidential verse. And that’s the thing, the one thing that’s probably most extraordinary about the Guardian piece.
I could understand it if the man had been elected poet laureate or had won some big literary prize but he hasn’t. His presidency will be memorable or damp squib depending on his political skills rather than his skills with a pen. Even if he was the poetic peer of the kind of little old lady who rings up a certain kind of radio show to share a certain type of topical doggerel it wouldn’t really affect whether or not he’s any good at the job he’s just been elected to. The question of whether or not Winston Churchill was a good journalist or writer or whether Ronald Reagan could actually act is only ever going to be of mild academic interest. Their reputations will rest on something different.
But it’s not just whether or not he’s a good poet. The headline of the article suggests that because his metaphors are clumsy and his lines don’t flow he is not worthy of the word poet at all. And that’s not fair. I’m not writing this to bang the Michael D. drum, it goes beyond whether we’ve elected a bard or a bullshitter. That phrase sticks in my head because it moves the goal posts. It taps into something that I have a sneaking suspicion goes beyond what convenient soundbite can be applied to a certain politician.
Titles matter. There are some you win, some you’re appointed, and others you earn after a long grind. The title of poet falls into this last category, like writer or artist or author or even, perhaps pushing it a bit, journalist. It’s the kind of title that you only feel comfortable calling yourself when you’ve got to a certain stage. It could be getting that first paid gig as a journalist, a first book for an author, an independent exhibition for an artist. Everyone has their own level but the bar tends to settle at a fairly average height. To use myself as an example. I’ve written stories as long as I can remember, even used to make little miniature books as a kid to bind them, but I would never call myself a writer. I would say I liked writing, or I wanted to be a writer. When I started work as a journalist I still hesitated to call myself a writer. Apart from anything else I was working in radio.
Despite the fact that in my weekends and at night I was working on a novel, I would only describe myself as a journalist. I’m even happy to call myself a hack – I’ve worked to pay the bills rather than serve the art – but, despite the fact the novel was eventually finished and I’d even started on a sequel, the title of writer and especially author just didn’t seem to fit.
These days I’ll call myself a writer and even author, quite happily. I’ve written two books that were published and sold in bookshops all over the country and all over the web. I know that whatever I do now I’ve passed that point. The title is earned.
There’s a lot of debate these days with the explosion of “independently” published books – covering everything self published down and including what would once have been firmly termed vanity publishing. It’s so easy for anyone who chooses to publish their work and sell it through Amazon onto Kindles across the planet. A bit more work and expense can produce an actual book that can be ordered online or even stocked in real bricks and mortar bookshops. The industry is changing and so a lot more people are probably entitled to call themselves author or writer.
I wonder if this is where the viciousness of the Guardian article comes from. A poet feeling encroached by any Tom, Dick or Harry hanging their hats on her hatstand and claiming a muse because they wrote a haiku once and published it on their blog. If that’s the case I’d like to send sympathetic thoughts to Carol Rumens. The market has recently got a lot more crowded and it’s harder than ever to get your voice heard. Even if you take the route of traditional publishing with it’s long apprenticeship in furtive adolescent notebooks, building the confident to submit to publishers, the eventual dizzying acceptance, even if you take that well travelled route, these days it’s damned crowded when you get there.
That’s why titles matter. We hit the milestones and want the rewards. When I was growing up the child of actors I was told that you couldn’t call yourself a pro unless someone not related to you was willing to pay. If you could get paid for your art you had passed the most important milestone. A certain level of ability and experience was assumed because otherwise you wouldn’t get the gig. By the time I had hit my 20s I’d worked out that talent and experience weren’t necessarily the only things that could get you paid for acting but that’s another post entirely! The long and the short of it was that amateurs just aspired to it. They weren’t willing to put everything on the line to earn a living at it. Only when you took that step could you earn the title of fully fledged artist…usually with the realisation that the living would be extremely hard won.
Of course it’s not always so black and white. Over the years there have been plenty of writers who’ve kept the day job. Chekhov was a doctor, Flann O’Brien a civil servant, the list goes on and on and on. Of course Michael D. was and is a politician. It’s easy to be churlish about those who have clung onto the security of a day job don’t have the temperament to be an artist. We all need to eat. The old milestones are still there. The bar you have to touch to win the right to call yourself the title. The president elect published his first collection of poems in 1970. He’s not part of the internet chatter where everyone you meet online seems to be working on a book.
It’s easy to assume that this is a new phenomenon brought about by the ubiquity of schemes like NaNoWriMo. But I’m not convinced in the sudden explosion of wannabe literary activity. In my teens and 20s in Dublin it seemed like everyone I met was writing a book. That might just be an Irish thing but I doubt it somehow. The only thing that’s changed now is all those people hunched over their bedroom notebooks can see all the other people and wave and talk about their hope and plans for world domination. The thing is that regardless of how someone takes those first few steps to that first and most important milestone, it’s not really changed. It might be easier than ever before to publish your words and more people might call themselves writers and poets than have necessarily earned the right, but the bar is in the same place. Whether it’s the self published author who’s sold enough ebooks on Kindle to give up the day job, or the literary effete who’s built a solid reputation through publication in a respected small press and enthusiastic readings there’s still a certain line to cross. We all instinctively know where it is. It’s not the size of the cheque, it’s the respect it’s given with.
All this has nothing to do ability. It’s more about a solid commitment to your craft (at the risk of sounding hopelessly pretentious). I don’t know Michael D. Higgins as a poet. I do remember him as a Minister for the Arts. Back then he showed his commitment to the arts and was damn good at his job. I’m delighted that, for once, the person we’ve elected President is going to champion Ireland’s artistic heritage. For that alone I wouldn’t fling pot shots at his own literary endeavours. I’m sure the debate about whether or not Michael D. is a good or bad poet will continue for years to come. I hope though that no one else will be silly enough to question whether he’s a poet at all. That’s a goalpost that doesn’t need to be moved.