Poetry is a culture heavily impregnated with the idolisation of poets. Popular knowledge of poetry stops where the anecdotes about poets end and the poetry begins. We remember Rimbaud as the original rockstar, vomiting all over the Paris culture elite. We remember Ginsberg as the mad fairy who blew people in parties and undressed on stage. Li Po as the alcoholic who drowned while trying to embrace the reflection of the moon in the river. Sylvia Plath for being suicidal. Ted Hughes for being her husband. Gertrude Stein for her dinner parties. We remember poets for being crazy, for being loners, bitter or ecstatic, for their failures more than their victories, for their eccentricities more than their attempts at finding common human traits. Not counting a few sound bites etched into the mental gravestones of our mutual consciousness (“I saw the best minds of my generation” … and “I am large, I contain multitudes” and the like) we hardly ever touch on their poetry.
Having soon spent a decade in Icelandic literary cliques I can confirm that this is not limited to the society of dead (famous) poets. Literary enthusiasts gossip about living poets and writers, big and small, like there’s no tomorrow. And culture-reportage in Iceland usually consists of asking a writer or artist what his or her “dream-weekend” might be, what they have in their pockets, or chit-chat about politics and social matters that may or may not have anything to do with the artist’s subject matter. What you soon realise when you first get interviewed for a book you’ve written is that the reporter in question will, in 9 cases out of 10, not have read your book. Even the critique, the reviews in the newspapers or other media, is inherently focused on the writer’s person: he or she has grown, he or she has lost his or her touch, he or she is venturing where no he-or-she has ventured before, he or she is old-fashioned, he or she is revolutionary. He or she should’ve taken more time. The list of clichés is longer, but as it induces involuntary vomiting in the columnist, I will stop here.
The French literary-critic Roland Barthes wrote a famous essay in the late sixties entitled “The Death of the Author”. In the essay Barthes railed against the idea that we read the text in the context of its author. The text should be free from whoever the author is, says Barthes, and in fact there is no actual “author”, only a “scriptor” who produces the work but does not explain it, does not have the (sole) right to unentangle his or her symbolic efforts—or indeed any other part of the work.
This may be a creative way to approach a poem, although perhaps a bit fundamentalist for most people’s taste. A poet’s life may be relevant to his or her work, either the methods of composition or his or her maternal relationship—whatever it is. Reading is a free world. And poets should maybe not be the ones deciding what readers see in their works or how they should be read. But I am confident that most of my fellow poets would be overjoyed if the media, when discussing the life, methods and opinions of the poet, would be so kind as to do so in the context of the poet’s work, rather than the context of the contents of the poet’s pockets.