Monday, January 11, 2010
What is a Witch? What is a Poet? What is a Poetess?
When the first definition came to me, I was tired from the exciting rigors of a Stonecoast residency but had centered myself with water, air, and thought. I thought of it while driving to the Stone House to teach a workshop:
A witch is someone who is so sensitive to the energy of the physical world that they have found it necessary to cultivate (perhaps initially as a survival skill!) the innate human ability to notice and change that energy. (Starhawk put it more succinctly: a witch is someone who can change consciousness at will).
The second definition arose in stimulating and excellent workshop discussion of poems and their meters with Stonecoast student poets:
A poet is someone who creates what is not apparently in stories but truly arises from them (as opposed to a fiction writer who creates stories. (And of course poets routinely used to, and can and do still, create both simultaneously)).
The third definition occurred through reading an article about Patti Smith sent me by Chas ( my cousin Charlie Finch)—a useful piece that helped me understand why things were the way they were when I lived on the lower east side in the early 80’s and, more importantly for me at this moment, helped me conceptualize the aesthetic distinctions between the terms “poet” and “poetess” that I’ve been mulling over for years (cf here and here and here).
Janis Joplin called Smith “the poet,” the article claims. And “poet” is by far today’s term of choice. Yet the headline refers to Smith as “the punk prose poetess.” Why? Leaving aside the headline-catchy connotation clash, it isn't simply about gender. “She married poetry to the punk movement,” the article claims. By implication, the poetess is the writer who uses poetry in the service of a movement, a lifestyle, a change in the actual world.
In recent times, even poets appointed Poet Laureate of the U.S. have been, by and large, admired all the more for abjuring both of the traditional central tools of the poet: not only meter, but also the responsibility to mark the shared public transitions and transformations of their society through “occasional poetry.” And all that time, as more visible poets explored the power of the individual unconscious, in fact it was the overlooked tradition of the “poetess” which truly carried these responsibilities of the poet-shaman on behalf of the society at large.
The poetess uses poetry to do the work of a witch, calling up and shaping energies to heal and transform society. The poetess, in other words, is a witch and a poet in one. I share in that work.
At the end of the “essay Confessions of a Postmodern Poetess,” I wrote, “I am a poetess. It’s a relief at last to admit it.” Now, after a further decade spent absorbing and meditating on the implications of the name, I will say it again somewhat differently, here on American Witch: “I am a poetess. It’s an honor at last to admit it.”