While I understand the impetus behind the above question, I must admit, having been asked it so often, I want to just fold my arms and turn my back in sheer vexation, but I don’t. I grit my teeth, breathe, smile then offer some shortened version of what is really a simple, but complex explanation about the voyage of poetry and the arduous and even hazardous steps that make one better. Of course it begs the question, better than now or then, better than X , Y or Z, or better at using words, or better at exploring a topic, or better at imagery, or just a better poet.
That is the dream of every poet, to be better than he/she already is. I think Kamau Brathwaite and Derek Walcott probably would concur. Maybe even Pablo Neruda, and his teacher/mentor Gabriela Mistral. I think Octavio Paz wanted to be a better poet, as did Gwendolyn Brooks, and of course so did Miss Lou, the great Louise Bennett. I am still searching to know and discover how I can become a better poet as I am not yet the poet I want to be or think I can be, nor will I be as better as I want to be, maybe not even before I die.
The problem is with the question, is that the phrasing has an erroneous premise — which implies that there is a magical formula that makes one a better poet; or if I think Mervyn Morris is a better poet than I am, then whatever works for him that makes him a better poet, might also work for me. But the fact is while some might consider Mervyn a better poet than I, there are those who might consider me a better poet than he. Maybe we should stop comparing guinep to jackfruit. When one asks this question what is it that the person really wants to know? Truly, I don’t remember ever asking this question, but my memory sometimes lapses.
A better poet always self promotes, so I want to reference myself, and invite potential askers of this question to consult my collection, Eros Muse: poems & essays, (Africa World Press, 2006), and specifically, “When the Poem Kisses You,” which is a letter to an emerging poet, resulting from my teaching life, and also my version of Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, whom I am certain wanted to be a better poet himself. Although the essay is not prescriptive, nor does it specifically answer the above, it does, I believe, speak to some important elements of this writerly life of a poet.
The letter begins, and I quote myself, “When the poem kisses you, there is no need to ask what it means. Just accept it as a gift.” A better poet is someone who is open to being kissed by a poem, and does not question the gift, by feigning such trite response such as, “Oh you shouldn’t have.” Or “that’s so thoughtful of you;” or even worse, “I just don’t feel I deserve this!” A better poet readily kisses back the poem, and insists that the kissing continues as long as is possible until there is the need to come up for air. Bottom line. A better poet wants to write great poems all the time. But a better poet does not want to write great poems that is like that of another poet’s, regardless of whether or not that person is famous. A better poet has her own voice. A better poet knows it is practically suicidal to compare herself to anyone else. A better poet daily goes about doing her work –which is to write her truths in the strongest and clearest way that she discovers– to become better. Period.
In the above-mentioned letter to an emerging poet, I invite the would-be poet to become intimate with the three P’s: patience, persistency and perseverance. This is the only formula I know, and it has worked for me. A better poet understands that under no circumstances, should a poem be rushed. A poem is not a woman in labor. A poem is a Yogi, sitting on a mountain, with fog wafting as gauze while he ponders his third eye. A better poet sits with the idea, allows it to take shape until it levitates, then ever so gently, the poet grasps the poem, firmly, every so affectionately, until they become one, then the poem becomes its own essence and of necessity leaves the poet.
The other two p’s, persistency and perseverance, are dispositions that any better or wanting to be better poet must become very familiar with. To aspire to be a better poet demands complete intimacy with these two fellows, the former of whom can be annoying to even the most agreeable person, and the latter, although often admired for unyielding determination, has limited number of friends. But a better poet does not take her/his cue from others; a better poet understands that the work of a poet is never done. There is no finish line that you can speed past, setting a world record and garnering a gold medal. A better poet will not get the endorsements nor have the entire island come out to welcome you home like Usain Bolt. A better poet is lucky if she is even allowed to come back home so she doesn’t expect anyone to meet her at the airport.
But what makes a better poet, better than any superstar and why I so admire your desire to become a better poet, is that a better poet will take the time to validate by recording what she thinks, feels and knows; a better poet, by descending into imagination, ascends to give language to her idea, and is often willing to share her poem, even in its imperfection, in hopes that someone else might catch a hold of the light and bring it close to their heart to warm and brighten their life.
I am thankful that Keorapetse Kgositsile, South African poet Laureate, whom I met in New York in the 70s when I was taking tentative steps in this area, and whom I had the pleasure of hearing read last March at the National Black Writers Conference in New York, 2013 (and where I was one of the invited poets) wants to be a better poet; I am thankful that Ernesto Cardenal, Nicaraguan poet and priest, whom I had the pleasure of meeting and hearing read at the Annual Poetry Festival in Granada, Nicarague, 2012, (where I was one of the invited poets), wants to be a better poet. I feel so fortunate that Jayne Cortez, whose poetry I admire, and who recently died, wanted to be a better poet, and I am grateful that I know and have read with Sonia Sanchez, who inspired me to walk this path, and who still strives and wants to be a better poet. Wanting to be a better poet is perennial.