What Is A Poet?

What is a poet? An unhappy person who conceals profound anguish in his heart but whose lips are so formed that as sighs and cries pass over them they sound like beautiful music. It is with him as with the poor wretches in Phalaris’s bronze bull, who were slowly tortured over a slow fire; their screams could not reach the tyrant’s ears to terrify him; to him they sounded like sweet music. And people crowd around the poet and say to him, “Sing again soon” – in other words, may new sufferings torture your soul, and may your lips continue to be formed as before, because your screams would only alarm us, but the music is charming.

– Søren Kierkegaard

To me, this passage illustrates the strange contradiction inside the soul of the artist, an unruly principle which lies at the heart of any creative endeavor. In order to create something of meaning or beauty, one must first identify with and experience a common trait, namely that which is painful, inexplicable, and staggering — human suffering.

Anguish, though never welcome or encouraged, is somehow necessary for the poet, the artist, the musician, and their kin. Out of unwanted pain forms incomparable beauty. What begins as a primal scream, trapped inside our feeble breast, may be mysteriously changed bit by bit into an ordered handiwork. That tremendous cry, once splitting our ears and rending our hearts, through the poet’s craft, unveils itself as something altogether pleasing and acceptable. The frog becomes a prince; the fog splinters before the noonday sun.

The poet has borne an agonizing truth for the world to see, dressed it proper in the guise of respectability. The audience claps politely without spilling their cocktails; critics dash home to dole out their praise; all while peddlers discern an opportune moment to hawk pennies with that hard-won fragment of your withered soul. The ruined artist in the heap of calamity.

And once your bleached bones dry in the wilderness, they throng at your grave demanding you to perform the trick all over again. What is left after you’ve spent your soul? What poem could you compose when your face turns to ash?

An unhappy poet indeed.

S.K. considers this treatment akin to an instrument of torture, a brazen bull in which people were gradually and gleefully roasted to death. An exaggeration perhaps, but one need not look to far to find examples of those who drowned to death in their own misery, cheered on by their so called fans.

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