Why is it so much easier to stand before a portrait of a writer one admires than to look in the mirror? We all do it. And we persist in doing it convinced that if we just stare at the face of the next portrait down the line for long enough we'll finally see ourselves. And we'll make sense. I've never found anyone out there who writes like me. If I did I'd very likely quit and let him get on with it. No point in the two of us eating ourselves up over a few lines of poetry.
I bought a book maybe fifteen years ago, a text book called simply Literature, which, amongst a host of other things, contains photographs of many of the authors represented therein and I remember clearly sitting and going through them, page by page, and looking for the 'author' in them. What should an author look like? I paid particular attention to the eyes. I didn't expect their faces to look like mine but I was looking for something, something in them that I could identify with.
I had expressed this idea in a poem a few years earlier:
THE DROWNING MAN
Though I kept my rooms on
I'd given up all hope of an audience
when one day I was summoned.
It was like an interview in the womb
before being granted life.
He read what I'd brought without comment,
and then addressed me in the half-light:
"There is a drowning man in us all,"
"and like a man who never sleeps
he is driven mad by his own existence."
He said no more;
but then he'd said it all.
We never met again.
I did not expect we would.
And that's all I can remember,
except his eyes:
as if some prisoner inside him
was peering out through them at me.
I had only ever seen them in a mirror.
17 October 1986
This was my 600th poem and I remember at the time being very pleased with the results. It was part of a sequence of poems called simply The Drowning Man Poems of which this was the climax if you will and probably the best one; I think there were a couple after this.
At the point of writing it I had met only one other published poet and although a far more genial and articulate character than I was he did have sad eyes, at least that's what I saw, although I have become well aware over the years of my talent for projection. Seriously, what's that guy doing on the right?
The issue under discussion here, of course, is one of identity. Like most words we use it without thinking about it. We feel we understand it so why get tied in a knot trying to define it? Simply because there is no simple definition and that can lead to misinterpretation. 'Identity' makes me think of the word 'identify' and 'identify' feels lost without a 'with' to tag along on after it. Is 'identity' the same? To acquire our own identities do we first need another to frame that identity?
Wikipedia opens up its entry on 'Identity' with the following helpful definition:
Identity is an umbrella term used throughout the social sciences to describe an individual's comprehension of him or herself as a discrete, separate entity.
So, fundamentally, 'identity' has to do with how different we are to others rather than how much we are alike others. There is, of course, the notion of 'group identity', 'belonging', if you will. I am a poet ergo I am a member of the group of poets. But I am also an individual.
So, who am I? I am, or have been, all of the following: father, son, brother, uncle, nephew, employee, colleague, manager, student, teacher, friend… You get the idea. The list goes on and on and yet, when I look in the mirror, when I look into the sad eyes of the bloke staring back at me in the mirror, what do I see?
A better example is when I see my photo up on the Web identifying me as an author. What the hell is my face doing up there?
Much of the groundwork on identity from a purely psychological point of view was done by a guy called Erik Erikson. Needless to say, others built on his work but the one that interests me is James Marcia who put forth a paradigm that focuses on the twin concepts of exploration and commitment. I listed some of the things I have been in my life. There have been more that I have explored but I found they weren't me. It's an expression we use all the time but have you really thought about it? I was self-employed for a bit. It's a fact. I could give you the dates. But I didn't include it in that wee list because it wasn't me. Okay, it was me. I did the work. I got paid. I sent my accounts into the tax office. But I was never comfortable in the position and got out of it and back into regular employment as soon as I could. You could say I'm self-employed now. I sell books and get paid for them and I do keep records but until I can pay my way based solely on my writing I regard my writing career as the tax office would, a paying hobby.
And how does being thought of as a hobbyist make me feel about being a writer? Yeah. Nuff said.
But let's stick with 'poet' because unless you're Seamus Heaney hardly any poet earns enough to be more than a paid hobbyist if even that once you add everything up. So I can say, hand on heart: "I am a poet," and yet – can you believe this? – after close to forty years writing the damn stuff I still feel that there's something out there called 'poetry' and there's what I do that I call 'poetry'. 'S nowt as queer as folk, eh?
Why do I feel that 'identity' and 'identify with' are mutually exclusive terms? Because one is personal and the other is social: it is possible to be a part and feel apart at the same time like feeling alone in a crowd. Identity is more than a feeling though, it is a definition. I don't feel I'm a poet, I know I'm a poet. How I feel about being a poet is another thing entirely. I'm a man. That is incontrovertible. And yet, when I'm in the company of a certain kind of man – testosterone-fuelled, beer-swilling, football-crazed and women-hungry – I feel uncomfortable being a man. Granted in that kind of company I'd probably feel more uncomfortable being a woman but you get my point.
In his essay, What Is Identity (As We Now Use The Word)? James Fearon takes this stab at defining 'personal identity' (the whole thing is worth a read too):
Personal identity is a set of attributes, beliefs, desires, or principles of action that a person thinks distinguish her in socially relevant ways and that (a) the person takes a special pride in; (b) the person takes no special pride in, but which so orient her behaviour that she would be at a loss about how to act and what to do without them; or (c) the person feels she could not change even if she wanted to.
Not sure why he uses 'she' but this obviously applies to both genders.
It's (c) that jumps out at me. I'm a poet in the same way that I'm a man. I can't change either. Okay, I can stop writing the words down but I don't believe that would stop me being a poet and I could stick on a frock but that wouldn't make me a woman except in some very weird carnival.
My social identity as a poet is an odd thing since I don't socialise with poets. Not in a real world sense. But if we go back a couple of years to before I was active online I still had to contend with how I perceived myself as a member of the set of poets (think Venn Diagrams). The fact that I didn't socialise says a lot about me. I knew there were others like me out there and yet I deliberately kept myself to myself. Was this an ego thing? Not really. I, as do a lot of people, view writing as a private thing. We don't even discuss what we're working on with our mates. So what would a group of poets do? Here, I'll show you mine if you show me yours. No, I don't think so.
I think my social identity as a poet really suffers because I'm not a social person in any aspect of my life. I would sing, "You will always find me in the kitchen at parties," but that simply isn't true – I'd never go to the party in the first place if I could get out of it – but if I did, yes, I'd be in the kitchen with the women. Safe.
I can't shake the feeling I get though when I see a photograph of a writer or watch them being interviewed. I want to ask of them what non-writers ask of me. Well, actually I don't because I've heard enough to know that they will probably be nothing like me. Which brings us round to imposter syndrome, which I wrote about back in February in my article 'Are you an imposter?', the feeling that you're a fake and about to be found out any day.
I don't think I'm doing anything particularly radical with my poetry but I wonder if E E Cummings ever sat down and looked at one of his poems and thought: Who am I kidding?
Now you might think all I'm looking for is a wee bit of reassurance, a pat on the back – "Don't be a silly bugger, Jim, of course you're a poet" – but I'm not. Pats on backs don't last very long anyway. Like most of the things I write like this I'm really addressing the poets out there who feel like me, who look in the mirror and don't see a poet looking back at them. Maybe one day you will. I hope you do. But if you don't my bit of sage advice would simply be: Stop looking in mirrors. And stay clear of portraits galleries too.
Let me leave you with a few more portraits – ladies this time – and you tell me which one's the poet.