How To Be A Real Great PoetIn nerd news: fragments of smoking pipes with traces of cannabis have been found in a location that was once William Shakespeare’s garden. Although it is not at all clear that any of these pipes belonged to the Bard (or indeed if they even date to his lifetime) scholars are excited: after all, here is a chance, however slim, of demonstrating that the boring stuffed shirt that was Bill Shakespeare really did write all that nice poetry. Maybe he was high as a kite.
I have written previously about why I think the pseudo-academic movement aiming to prove that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare exists at all, given the overwhelming evidence that yes, Shakespeare was the author of Shakespeare, and the complete lack of evidence supporting any other candidate. Given that this movement essentially boils down to “anyone but that guy”, the reasons for its persistence are entirely about Shakespeare’s personality, life and appearance. The quality of Shakespeare’s poetry aside, he was not a proper artist.
All that is covered in my prior entry on this subject, but the news about the cannabis pipes inspired me to write some more about what it means to be a real poet, not just some boring guy who happens to write great poetry. Unfortunately for the Bard, later poets – men like Byron, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Baudelaire – cemented the rules by which all literary artists must abide if they are to be considered “real” artists.
Perhaps some aspiring poet, by chance reading this, will take note of these rules. Because here is the thing: whether or not what you write is any good is of little importance. After all, with rare exceptions, no one actually reads poetry. I mean, not voluntarily. (Shakespeare is one of those exceptions, by the way.) Oh, stop yelling. Let’s be frank here. Who reads Arthur Rimbaud, except for a school assignment, or for work, honestly? Nobody, that’s who. Only movie characters effortlessly quote ee cummings, or just as effortlessly identify some obscure line of poetry lobbed at them out of the blue. If we, actual non-fictional human beings, remember any of these guys, it’s because of how they lived, not what they wrote.
So here is how to earn the reputation of a great poet (besides by having the Y chromosome, of course) and thereby quell any doubts as to authorship:
1. You must belong to a circle. You aren’t a true bohemian unless you are in a circle. Spending time at a prestigious university counts as being in a circle (this is what the anti-Stratfordians are referring to when they slam Shakespeare for not having attended Oxbridge). Ideally, however – and certainly if you aren’t a graduate of one of the world’s oldest and most exclusive institutions – you should belong to some kind of an informal literary club. Not a book club, silly, but a group consisting of poets and bohemian hangers-on. It doesn’t matter what you guys do when you get together. Even if you spend all your time getting pig-drunk on cheap swill and pinching waitresses’ butts, membership in one of these will give you the necessary cred to be considered a real poet.
2. You must have a complicated, messy personal life. Lose your virginity at a disturbingly young age – but not so young that it makes people see you as nothing but a victim of a horrific sex crime. Ambiguous sexuality a plus. You must at some point while still boyish have an affair with a married older woman. Do this even if you are gay. Double points if you diddle your sister, or at least make people think you do.
3. You may marry if you want to, but if you do, you have to be abusive. No, don’t punch her lights out like a common hick, be creative ferchrissakes. Falsely tell your wife her mom just died, then laugh in her face. Set her hair on fire. Arrange for her to bump into your mistress – in public. Call her an angel. When she inevitably leaves you, write her florid, passive-aggressive letters, then widely circulate them; you want that stuff published.
4. Drink heavily and use drugs. Do this ostentatiously, in public, and talk about it non-stop.
5. Have a lifelong unrequited love for some woman who is hopelessly unavailable to you, because she is married and aristocratic, and also dead. It must be a tragic secret that everyone knows.
6. Die young, preferably violently. Here is a good rule of thumb: ideally, you should check out before that bald spot becomes noticeable. If you insist on dying of natural causes, the only terminal illnesses worthy of a true poet are syphilis, consumption, and syphilis and consumption together. If you do die of syphilis, make sure to give it to your mistress, so that posterity have a woman to blame for your untimely death.
7. Be dogged by controversy. Do crazy things. Embrace extreme ideas. And above all, always, make sure everyone knows about it. Live madly and very publicly.
8. While you certainly shouldn’t make this your life’s obsession, you must, every once in a while, write stuff that’s shockingly misogynistic. It must not be directed against women as a group, but against women in your life. Nothing will establish your reputation for being edgy and original like sliming women. It’s been considered edgy and original for hundreds, if not thousands of years, so you can’t go wrong with such a time-tested recipe. Be mean and over-the-top. To give you an example of how far you can (and should) go on this, Charles Baudelaire once wrote a very explicit poem comparing the woman who was supposed to be the love of his life to a decomposing animal carcass (“legs in the air, like a lewd woman, hot and oozing poisons, shamelessly and nonchalantly displayed, its belly swollen with gas,” and it gets more vivid from there on). If in your travels through the muck of humanity, you ever find someone who’s actually read Baudelaire and ask that person to name the first poem that comes to mind, I guarantee you, it will be that one.
Shakespeare, alas, checks none of these boxes. But who knows, perhaps the cannabis pipes will prove to be his, and then the “controversy” will be settled forever, amen.