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The Role of the Poet. November 24th, Konya, Turkey


Do you believe in a Role for the Poet? If so, how does it differ from the

Role of the Citizen?


No, I don’t. Do you believe in a Role for the Dentist? My dentist is more

important to me than any poet.

—John Tranter


There is a difference between people who write poems and poets. Poets are those who embody a

way of being in the world with a somewhat historically standardized and accurate profile. They

are in a world of their own—in the world but not of it—like a door unhinged, by inclination or

experience. Poets live apart from others, are free-spirited in their behavior and morals, and

there’s also something slightly effete or dark and bookish and ultimately removed about them. A

poet is fully aware in all moments of where they are in relationship to time and mortality—and

so are not really where they seem to be at all. When I told people in Ireland that I was a poet,

they brought me into their parlor and confessed everything to me, as if I were a priest. When

people feel they are on an endless escalator going nowhere, the poet can articulate thoughts that

take people for a ride to somewhere, or remind them of what has been forgotten, and sometimes

this remembering is a form of medicine that can redeem a life.


Being a poet is a responsibility. As they say, “First, do no harm.” Sometimes this is like Rumi,

turning in circles around his heart, sometimes this is like Whitman, walking the streets of Brooklyn

with new eyes, or like those who sing of things hermetic in order to make them visible, like Blake,

or those who transform the ordinary into its true amazement, or those who dance in the center

of a crowd, turning the random mass into a throbbing wholeness. Or those who sing, who weave,

who sculpt, who paint something that is really something else, leading the eye to where the artist’s

eye is, not was. To do the real work so that your voice can become something other than just

your voice, to transcend thought and then stay transcendent, to become something so much of

the essence that the sense of self and time itself disappears. A poet is not interested in creating the

new because they’re more interested in discovering what is already here. Nothing of imagining

could equal this. A poet unmakes. A poem or a painting or any work of art is not a representation

of something, it is something. It is a sharp image of what is, and still is, not what was or what

will never be. A poem waits, a poem lurks, a poem hovers, breathing on its own. It teases us, is

it something being told to us, or is it something we remember? A poem is like a sharp wind that

scatters the clouds. A poem is a vision captured not by the eye in the skull but the eye that sees

through the eye, first as the beloved and then as many other things as well, until all of the obstacles

to joy have fallen away.


And then in the abject failure of every attempt at trying to realize, we realize we cannot realize

and have no desire to realize any longer. We cannot hold it or become what we want but can only

get out of its way and surrender to it, and then a nothing, a no one, discovers there is nothing left,

and that only when there is nothing left can we know for certain what we are and what we are




[Originally published in NHS 2005, http://www.poetspath.com/napalm/nhs05/randy_roark.html.]