Today’s poetry essay tries to give an answer to the question: is it okay for a poet to write poetry about things they aren’t connected to? This idea was mentioned in the post from Friday, Poetry essay: The experiences of a poet aren’t seen.
Many circumstances and experiences can be written about in poetry. Some things include: diseases, war, plights of certain groups, marriage, having children, being unemployed, natural disasters, and other things. Some things are bad and others are good.
This idea raises a question: is it okay for a poet to write about something they aren’t connected to? In other words, is okay for a poet to write about homelessness if they’ve never been homeless? Is it okay for a poet to write about marriage if they’ve never been married? Is it okay for a poet to write about a flood if they have never been through one?
This idea of being “okay” is a perception of the audience and those who might criticize a poet’s work. It is the notion of questioning if the poet has the authority, legitimacy, or connection to something to be able to be perceived as permitted to write about it.
Think of a poet writing about being homeless. They might write about what it is like to be homeless. Is it okay for a poet to do this if they themselves have never been homeless and don’t know anyone who is? Do they have any “right” to write about it?
A poet who writes about something they aren’t connected to might come across badly. They might seem disingenuous. They might seem like an outsider. One could imagine a critic commenting, “What right do have to write about this? You’ve never gone through it.” They could be viewed as talking about something illegitimately.
In this essay, the answer to the question, is it okay, will be supported as being yes.
First, people comment on things they aren’t connected to all the time. Think of any innumerable political discussions. People often take very ardent positions and argue passionately about things they aren’t directly connected to.
As an example, think of a situation where people are arguing for or against an increase in the minimum wage. People who argue this might not be earning minimum wage. They might not directly know anyone who is. They might only be connected to the minimum wage in a broad economic sense. Does this mean they can’t have an opinion on it? Does this mean they can’t argue one side or the other concerning it? Are they illegitimate when they talk about it? Do people question their right to speak on it?
The answer to this is no. People often speak about issues they have no direct connection to and others don’t criticize them for speaking about them (although they might criticize the positions they take). This happens all the time in political discussions. If people only talked about things they were directly connected to, there would be very few political discussions.
This same idea applies to poetry. People can have opinions about things they aren’t directly connected to, and they can express them. Just as not being connected to an issue doesn’t mean a person can’t talk about it, it also doesn’t mean they can’t write poetry about it.
Second, think about people trying to support a group that is suffering in some way. Think about refugees or the oppressed. These people might protest, give speeches, and try to raise awareness, even though they aren’t part of the groups.
Are these people seen as not having the connection to do this? Are they seen as disingenuous? Are they criticized with comments like, “You aren’t part of these groups, so you can’t talk about them?”
The answer is generally no. People support groups that are suffering all the time, without being part of those groups. They might feel a general empathy and connection to humanity that motivates them to take action. The fact that they aren’t part of the groups doesn’t delegitimize them.
This same idea applies to poetry. If a poet wants to write about a group that is suffering in some way, their lack of direct connection to the group doesn’t preclude them from doing so. A person can care about people even if they aren’t in the same group as those people.
Third, people can learn about things they have never experienced. Although the learning might not be as complete as it would be had the person also gone through a situation, it can still be sufficient for a person to speak about something.
Imagine a poet who has never had cancer wanting to write about it. Maybe they wanted to help people with the various diseases feel emotionally better. They could learn a great deal about cancer by reading about. They could learn about the different kinds of cancer, the different stages, the different treatments, and so forth. Although they won’t ever know what it is really like, they can learn enough to be able to write about it. The fact that they have never been through it, doesn’t mean they can’t know at least enough to be able to write something about it that impacts people.
Fourth, sometimes when a person is criticized for writing about something they aren’t connected to, what they are really being criticized for is the position they are taking.
Think about any polarized social issue. If a poet writes about something like this, without having a connection, and a reader agrees with the position the poet takes, the reader might not criticize the poet for their lack of connection. Because the poet is supporting what the reader believes, the reader might not question the poet’s right to express the support.
On the other hand, if a poet writes about something they aren’t connected to, and a reader disagrees with the position the poet takes, one way to argue against the poet would be to claim the poet doesn’t have the right to speak on the subject. It can be a way to dismiss the person, without having to show why their argument is incorrect.
This notion can in particular be the case if the reader is directly connected to an issue. If the reader reads a poem by a poet not connected to the issue, and the poet expresses a point of view the reader disagrees with, they can take offense at it. They can question the poet’s right to speak on the subject. They might consider the poet an outsider to the issue and therefore not qualified to write about it.
This though, might not be the case if the poet expressed a point of view the connected reader agreed with. In that case, the reader might appreciate the poet writing about the issue and commend them for taking a position despite their lack of connection. If a reader agrees with what a poet says, they might not criticize them for saying it.
Fifth, poetry is supposed to be open. It is supposed to be about expression. It isn’t supposed to have boundaries and limits imposed by perception.
Think of the countless things a poet might write about. If every poem was subject to a test of connection – poets could only write about something if they were directly connected to it – there would be little poetry out there.
Think of the countless things a poet might write about. It could be anything from the very serious to the very silly. Imagine if every poem was subjected to a test of connection. Would there be any poetry?
When writing poetry about things they aren’t connected to, poets might worry how they come across. They might worry if people will see the poet as bad in some way. They might wonder if they will be seen as a fraud, a usurper, or an outsider. They might wonder if they will be seen as illegitimate or not having the right to speak about something.
Although a poet will be viewed negatively by some readers for writing about something they aren’t connected to, this doesn’t mean the poet shouldn’t write about it. A poet should feel free to write about the issues they want, regardless of their connection to them. Poetry is about expressing ideas, and a poet should feel free to do so.