The difference between being a male poet and being a gay man is that it has become increasingly acceptable to come out as gay.
Being a poet, and a male, is very similar to being a gay man. You have to confront something of the same prejudices, the same ridicule, and the same fear that your nature opposes any claim to masculinity. You understand from an early age that your instincts are driven in a different way than most men, and because of that you struggle to find a group of men with whom you can bond, with whom you can identify and claim for your tribe.
There is a big difference though. In the last forty years it has become increasingly acceptable to be a gay man. Though you face the same archaic prejudices, you at least have a community you can attach yourself to, a tribe ready and waiting to accept you, and which will understand your struggle.
Not so with the male poet, or the male artist.
Let me clear something up first, because I know what kind of arguments are coming my way. Ostensibly, society encourages art. You can’t walk two blocks in any major city without being confronted by art, exhibitions, theatre or any other kind of creative celebration. High art has always been a central aspect of our civilisation, and male artists and writers and performers form the backbone of our cultural heritage. If anything, you might say, there are too many male artists and not enough female ones. Right? That’s your argument, isn’t it?
Well, no. You’re wrong. On the surface, our civilisation has a very happy relationship with art. Poetry is celebrated, just as great science and academic intelligence is celebrated. Those artists of achievement are welcomed into the central institutions of our society.
However, that’s not what I am talking about. I am not talking about the surface level of society. I am not talking about the pageantry of institutionalised art and ideas. I am talking about the cultural subconscious. I am interested on where The Poet fits in as a male archetype in the cultural subconscious.
The truth is he doesn’t fit it in.
It’s one thing for a society to celebrate the success of an artist. It is quite another for a society to encourage artistic endeavors in their infancy, when the poet sets out on his mission. An artist realises they are an artist, when they are confronted with the truth of themselves. They realise that they cannot do anything else other than express this burning desire within them. No matter how much they try to find some “practical” avenue in which to place their energies or focus on making a living, the instincts and forces of their heart will not allow themselves to be manipulated.
It’s a terrifying realisation, because it has nothing to do with talent. It has nothing to do with formal capacity, or giftedness. In these instances, society is a little more lenient. It can allow someone to be different if that difference is manifested in outstanding excellence, if that unique tendency is marked out by some noteworthy gift.
But most artists are not like that. Most artists are born with an instinct, a different idea about what’s important than what society says should be their priority. Most artists start with their insights, and the rest of their lives is spent desperately searching for a tangible way of manifesting those insights, one that is effective but which will also allow them a place in society.
Many artists do not survive this process. The demands of society are such that results must be evident. It is not enough to have an idea, one must show formal talent, one must have the skills ready-made to prove the worth of that idea. My point is that society does not celebrate artists, it only celebrates successful artists.
It is my belief that the archetype of The Poet is the hardest to integrate into a Patriarchal society. In a Patriarchal society, poetry and the arts are generally reserved for the girls, unless there is there is an early recognisable talent for a certain craft. Then and only then can there be any allowance made.
It is hard for female artists in a Patriarchal context. I understand that. But I think it is harder for men to be artists. I really do. I don’t think the precedence given to so-called masculine values in our culture helps those men who are born with a poetic nature.
Society can forgive a woman who decides that her best course of action in life is to go on welfare and write everyday. Society will offer no such forgiveness to a man. He is born with too much cultural baggage for that to be acceptable to his peers and even himself.
When a man “comes out” as a poet, he is at best met with bemused expressions. At worst, he suffers the angry prejudices that a gay man must encounter early in his coming out process. There is something unmale about claiming a poetic identity. You are tacitly declaring to the world that you make no priority of making money, of making yourself immediately useful to society. You offer no prudential value to your community.
The archetype of the male Poet is an anathema to a Patriarchal society. Men who embody this archetype suffer a peculiar fate. They can involve themselves in society to the degree that they repress themselves, to the degree that they bury the truth of themselves, and hide their sensitivities, and their “feminine” natures.
Until society turns around and recognises these men for their achievements, such individuals are treated with a contempt. They are a threat, because this society is founded on suppressing volatile and emotionally driven behavior on the part of men.
These men desperately search throughout their lives for a mask that society will deem acceptable, that will protect them from isolation and shame. Such men yearn to be taken on their own terms, to be seen as men despite the range of their emotional facilities, despite the fact that they offer nothing to a society driven by industry and market value.
Some men adopt masks that seem to allow their art to form part of their masculinity. However, they are faced with a life of internal conflict. Think of the likes of Dostoevsky, Bukowski, Hemingway. Men whose artistic nature drove them to poverty, drink, or suicide regardless of the greatness of their art. Men who had to suffer to prove their worth as poets, and who were never really accepted even in the face of celebrated success.
The Poet as archetype is an affront to the male dominated society. He produces nothing of immediate value. He exhibits emotional nuances that threaten masculine stereotypes. He is by nature a sensual creature in a society that fears sensuality above anything else.
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