Do Poets Write Poetry or Find It?

While I hesitate to call myself a poet (and I never expect to deserve that title), I do enjoy writing poetry. There have been many moments when the only way I could properly capture some aspect of reality was to frame it in the lines of a poem.

Nature inspires me most. It often leaves me speechless, especially during the changing seasons: dark brooding fall days mingle echoes of deep longing and contentment, while fresh warm spring mornings convince me that if I jumped I’d stay airborne. I frequently glimpse the sublime in the world around and long to find words to express these realities.

When I am fortunate enough to capture those glimpses and translate them into poetry, it captures and conveys that moment of truth more powerfully than I could ever process in my mind alone. In those moments, I know that I have experienced the most wonderful type of creativity: not because I’m creating something new, but because I’m giving words to a poem already written in reality.

In his essay “The Poet”, Ralph Waldo Emerson explains that the poet’s purpose is to give words to reality. And, while I don’t follow Emerson into transcendentalism, much of my understanding of art and creativity is shaped by his writings.

“The Poet” begins by re-designating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful as the Knower, the Doer, and the Sayer. Emerson then argues that the poet is the Sayer—he sees beauty in creation and is able to express it for those who are at a loss for words, and even for those who are blind to these realities. As he puts it,

in our experience, the rays or appulses have sufficient force to arrive at the senses, but not enough to reach the quick and compel the reproduction of themselves in speech.

The poet expresses the hidden beauties of reality. That’s his job.

Emerson goes on to explain that the poet is not creating anything new, he is simply capturing and relating a piece of the eternal poem:

For poetry was all written before time was, and whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we hear those primal warblings and attempt to write them down.

One of the most beautiful aspects of this approach to poetry is the unity is gives to poets in the act of creation. Each individual poem paints a different piece of reality, revealing a part of the whole. So even when I’m at a loss for words I can go to the canon of poetry and find words expressing the realities I could only sense.

I believe we can tune ourselves to the song of nature not only by going out into the world, but also by reading poets like Emerson. When we, like them, hear and convey sublime realities we are fulfilling the telos of the poet, progressing from being a Knower of realities to becoming a Sayer.

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