This is one of my favorite poems, written by a good friend and a fine poet, Bill Graeser. The title links to his blog where the poem is posted:
Although he had not the hands to crochet, the patience to build birdhouses or the nerve to push a hook through a worm in the hope of pulling a fish from the sea, he did write poems and wrote often and late into the night. Was it pain that made him write? The pain of all those stitches, of shoes that despite their size were still too small? Was it psychological pain of social non-acceptance? Or the electricity that years later still snapped between his fingers?
No, it was simply what his brain wanted to do, the brain they dug up and sowed into his head, it was just grave-robbing luck. At poetry readings, where everyone is welcome, he read his poems sounding like a man who having fallen into a well and cried out for years was now finally being heard.
Like this there are many so-called monsters with poems to share. The same is true of angels, of gangsters, shepherds, anyone who fits words together like body parts, revises, revises again, until magically, beautifully, lightning leaps from the pen and the poem opens its eyes, sits up from the page, staggers into the world, and whether it is seen as monster, or friend, it is alive, every word it says is real and it comes not from the grave, but from the sky.
In an interview for the Fall 2001 issue of Paris Review, George Plimpton asks US Poet Laureate Billy Collins to describe what it takes to be a poet.
If you had to construct a poet out of whole cloth, so to speak, what attributes would you give him or her?
A Frankenstein monster! First, a sense of attentiveness. Then wanting to hang around the language. If you look a word up in the dictionary and twenty minutes later you’re still wandering around in the dictionary, you probably have the most basic equipment you need to be a poet. It’s just liking the texture of language. I think there’s another thing, a kind of attitude—an attitude of not ever getting used to being alive, of not ever taking your life for granted.
There’s a very deep strain of existential gratitude that runs through a lot of poetry. It’s certainly in haiku. Almost every haiku says the same thing: it’s amazing to be alive here. There’s a little haiku: “A cherry tree in blossom / In the distance / I hear a dog barking.” Those two things have nothing to do with each other, except the fact that the poet was there to see and hear them. So the haiku is saying, I was here. “Kilroy was here.” To appreciate the wonder of that, you have to imagine the absence of that, of not being there, of nonexistence, right? I consider poets to be a part of a larger group of people who don’t have to survive major surgery or go through a windshield in order to feel grateful for being alive. It shouldn’t require such traumatic experiences to feel grateful. So I think a love of language and a sense of gratitude would be two ingredients in the recipe for making a poet.
And laziness! Not being able to write more than half an hour a day. You know Max Beerbohm’s line that the hardest thing about being a poet is knowing what to do with the other twenty-three and a half hours of the day.
Do you have any trouble with the other twenty-three and a half hours?
No, no, I have plenty to do. I mean, there’s always the piano and walking the dog, and I’m very good at just playing with my own tail. While the novelist is banging on his typewriter, the poet is watching a fly in a windowpane.
So, to review, the four attributes of a poet are: attentiveness, a love of language, a sense of gratitude for being alive, and laziness. You can see the complete interview here: Billy Collins, The Art of Poetry No. 83.