An Orphic Oath: Establishing a Standard of Excellence for Aspiring Poets

Updated on June 10, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Orpheus - God of Music & Poetry

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A Hippocratic Oath for Poets

Beginning poets should be required to take a vow equivalent of the medical "Hippocratic Oath." If poets could be held to a standard of excellence, less doggerel would plague the literary world.

While all poets, established or aspiring, could benefit by adhering to a standard of excellence, it is the beginning poet who could most benefit from taking an artistic equivalent to the physicians' famed "Hippocratic Oath."

The Hippocratic Oath is a covenant between the beginning physician and his profession regarding his conduct with patients. Perhaps such an oath for poets could be called an Orphic Oath, after Orpheus, the mythical father of poetry and music, who descended into Hades and then returned.

Does Poetry Make Sense?

Poets require standards. Many novice poets believe that anything that occurs to them to spew across the page in lines shorter than prose should be regarded as poetry. And many novices are convinced that poetry does not make sense and should not. They think that words in poem always have altered meanings: light never means light, dark never means dark, smile never means smile—but must be interpreted or translated into some meaning that never approaches the literal meaning of the word.

For far too many beginning wordsmiths, words in poems take on a magic spell that renders them so other worldly that only the expert poetry reader or teacher can ever really understand them. As I taught English composition, I discovered that most students thought that poetry could mean anything they wanted it to mean. And others believed that only the teacher could tell them what it meant; most students felt that they as students could never figure it out for themselves.

As I was walking across the Ball State University campus, outside Bracken library, I heard a young woman remark about her composition instructor, “She says my writing doesn’t make sense. But I write poetry and it’s not supposed to make sense.” That remark told me a lot about many students' attitude toward poetry. Many students begin with notion that poetry is "not supposed to make sense," while others believe that somehow it might make sense to a teacher.

Aspiring Poets Need to Know Better

It is understandable for general studies students to begin with inaccurate beliefs about poetry, but by the time a young person has decided to write poetry, it seems that that aspiring poet would know better. One wonders which poets such future poets admire. But the sad fact is that many would-be poets likely do not admire any poets, because they have never actually read and studied any poets or poems.

Another immature yet wide-spread belief about poetry usually held by those who have moved to a mid-level stage but who have not yet learned enough to remain humble is that to explicate, analyze, or otherwise comment upon the work is to diminish its value as a poem. The mistaken idea also stems from the notion that words in a poem always mean other than their literal meaning. These mid-level beginners hold that critical commentary on a poem turns out the light that mystically shines from the poem left unscrutinized.

The Oath

If you are a beginning poet, or a mid-level beginner, (even seasoned, published poets could benefit from this oath), you might do well to consider the following oath, which I have recreated, based on the Hippocratic Oath to which physicians swear at the beginning of their careers.

As I begin (continue) my career as a poet, I solemnly swear to the following covenant to the best of my ability:

1. I will respect and study the significant artistic achievements of those poets who precede me, and I will humbly share my knowledge with those who seek my advice. I will dedicate myself to my craft using all my talent while avoiding those two evils of (1) effusiveness of self-indulgence and (2) pontification on degradation and nihilism.

2. I will remember that there is a science to poetry as well as an art, and that spirituality, peace, and love always eclipse metaphors and similes. I will not bring shame to my art by pretending to knowledge I do not have, and I will not cut off the legs of colleagues that I may appear taller.

3. I will respect readers and ever be aware that not all readers are as well-versed in literary matters as I am. I will not take advantage of their ignorance by writing nonsense and then pretending it is the reader’s fault for not understanding my disingenuousness. Regardless of the level of fame and fortune I reach, I will remain humble and grateful, not arrogant nor condescending.

4. I will remember that poetry requires revision and close attention; it does not just pour out of me onto the page, as if opening a vein and letting it drip. Writing poetry requires thinking as well as feeling.

5. I will continue to educate myself in areas other than poetry so that I may know a fair amount about history, geography, science, math, philosophy, foreign language, religion, and other fields of endeavor that result in bodies of knowledge.

6. I will remember that I am no better than prose writers, songwriters, musicians, or politicians; all human beings deserve respect as well as scrutiny as they perform their unique duties, whether artist or artisan.

7. I will not rewrite English translations of those who have already successfully translated and pretend that I too am a translator. I will not translate any poem that I cannot read and comprehend in the original.

If young poets treat their art as a trust between themselves and all they hold sacred, they will gladly follow this covenant and represent their chosen art gracefully and successfully.

Postscript: Supporting Yourself by Writing Poetry

Aspiring poets needs to be aware that making a living solely by writing poetry is unlikely. They will, therefore, need to support themselves by other means, at least until they can ultimately parlay their literary reputations into full-time writing. An example of a contemporary poet who was able to parlay that reputation is Dana Gioia.

The Genius of Poetry Finding Burns at the Plough

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    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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