Poetry and the Individual


Whenever one acts in reality, the question of individuality is at least latent. It is latent in either the conscious mind of the individual or in the deed itself. Even in just being (which one never is quite just being), one has a sense of locality, not merely in space and time but in experience and memory. No matter how alike to others we are, or even alike to the cosmos around – the wind and rain and trees and fellow organisms – we remain apart. For if there were nothing about them distinct from one another, we could not know of any of them, and we are no exception to this general principle of differentiation. And if this is indeed the cause of our alienation in life, it need not be, for it is also the cause of our consolation. Whether we suffer one or the other is dependent upon either fate or choice or both, if that makes any sense to thee.1

Beyond this, much of the action we take is given to the maintenance of the conditions that allow our distinctness. There is nothing quite so utterly distinct as the person or the individual. The immense amount of complex difference which must exist in the unconscious through the conscious mind to make the phenomenon of the person is, without exaggeration, nearly incomprehensible. The cosmos, for all its massivity and complexity, is outdone on the whole by this small part of it, which is that which comprehends its presence. But to get to this point, it seems that life has had to fight for every square inch of order against entropy (That is put too poetically. Life actually tends to work with entropy) in order to establish the bulwark of mind, which is the foundation of individuality in the personal sense. Apparently, self-replicating systems such as ourselves are, at least upon one of the routes up the mountain of adaptation, aided by such special distinctiveness.

I must, of course, bring all of this crashing down to the smaller but also wonderful world of the poets and their poems. As always, one can’t avoid the discussion of creativity and imagination in general when doing so.

Poets are persons who are only poets because they are persons. It is deliciously obvious that stones and streams don’t write poems or anything, but that poets would have had a hard time writing of anything were things like stones and streams, mountains and seas, non-existent. And by non-existent, I don’t mean absolutely so. I mean non-existent in relation to a person. These are made present to us within our minds, and this is special kind of existence one could call presence as over against being.

None of these things in the world bother themselves with their individuality. This is the world of oblivion. But there are other persons, and these do. This is the world of participation, a terminology that will make sense later on in this essay. This is the social realm we are all so familiar with. And it contains, obviously, other humans, but also, to a greater and lesser extent, other species we are with in life. And these two “worlds” are not separate; they are not even fundamentally distinct. They exist in one.

The individual never really is in the Oblivion. It barely can be imagined. In fact, it can’t. It would be the equivalent of imagining non-being. It is also why it is so hard to refute for absolute certain the idealists, since even the conception of a world without mind takes place within a mind within the consciousness of some person, which casts doubt on the status of such a conception.

In this sense, all poets are idealists, or at least quasi-idealists. They never presume Oblivion; they always are sure of participation. Even the social or political poets, who focus mostly on the issues of suffering arising from the conditions of human civilization rather than more imaginative concerns, are still delving into the world of participating parts. The most obscure or confused or even malicious poet is still, by his creative attitude, affirming participation. Even evil is as participatory as anything else, inasmuch as it parasitizes on the presence of some other. You can’t get away from it by cynicism or solipsism (not from the latter because the contents of one’s own head would never let you be, even if no outer world was there to impose itself, and not from the former since such an attitude is a recognition of some set of relations in the world).

The world, thus, is always one of presence and participation to the poet and to the artist in general. And so the poet must be concerned with what it means in practice to be an individual in his art without being lost in that individuality, which, while such lostness isn’t really possible in the total sense, is something approximately possible since, to some extent, it has real effects when it is occurring, and bad ones at that.


A poet should be an individual, but not a lone one. All great and good poets can be distinguished from one another by their writing. It is only bad ones that disappear into a slush of indistinction or unrecognizableness. The only exception I can think is if one is quite skilled at imitating the style of poets gone before; but since this requires so much skill (if it is to be done well at all), it must be the possible exception that proves the rule (and who really wants to do it?).

So in what sense should the poet be an individual? That does seem the right question to ask. Well, room should be allowed for idiosyncratic elements and independent forms, but probably not too many. Blake is a good poet, but one of the only things keeping him from greatness was his uniqueness. That “arbitrary symbolism” Yeats refers to is his Achilles’ heel. It isolated him, though some would say that if it isolated him from the society of his fellow artists and readers it did not from the cosmos itself. Perhaps: prophets do wander in realms mortals have never before tread. So then Blake was a great prophet (something I will not deny), but, maybe, not a great poet (something I will not affirm). Anyone’s existence is replete with such trade-offs.

A poet should not thus lose himself in whatever strengths he specially has, or weaknesses. They must each in their own way (including the weaknesses, I do not exclude them), prop up the poetry, but not be it in its stuff too much. Why is this? It is primarily because, like language, poetry is passed down to us. No matter how odd or untraditional we wish to be, we can only be so with reference to normality and tradition. To be counter-cultural, one must have a culture at first: for who rebels against a culture they never held at some point or were at least pressured to accept? But just like one does not invent a language to speak to others, so one should not invent of whole-cloth a poetry to speak to others. One must be careful to bow before they reign. If you resent this advice and wish to still continue to be as rebellious as is possible for you, remember: you are not bowing to persons, worthy or not, you are submitting to the language itself and to its prosody. This does not mean following the forms of the past; it does mean consciously shaping what you do in relation to these. If the frontiers of beauty are to be pushed within, say, the English language, it won’t be done by complete rebels or complete conservatives.

Indeed, I would simply put that the past is unavoidable. This is what you will do; it is the only track in the road to follow. Master the inevitable or it will master you. You should rather learn what’s old consciously, even if you do so to rebel, than first rebel and still unconsciously follow the old road, albeit by walking aimlessly, passing over it and back again. There is nothing more important to the rebel than authority. You must relish it if you relish rebellion.

I say all that since rebellion is often considered the root of individuality in our age. And it is sometimes so indeed. But my point is that rebellion must only be a species of a wider genus of those things that originate individuality. No artist should fail to rebel at all. There is always someone to rebel against since the world, if it is anything, is a place of a diversity of flaws primed for conflict with the vision of a better realm. But, still, it cannot be all one does. For then you really are only reacting to your enemy and do grant him god-like significance in relation to yourself (which is not a very individualistic thing to do).

Though there are perhaps many other modes for originating individuality, let us come up with another dipolar element to contrast conveniently with rebellion – some other aspect to work with rebellion to form what is the goal of any artist or poet (indeed of any human being), and that is creation. This is the priority of humanity. If we were fashioned by process and time to create in order that we might survive and reproduce, that process granted us pleasure in creation, and so, we, the conscious-beings, can choose to pursue this pleasure by creation whether or not it aids our survival.

And it is participation that is this other bit of magic to stand with and against rebellion. To participate is obviously counter to the act of rebellion. Rebellion separates you out from something or some others, whereas participation joins you with them. Note, participation implies that the individual is present with that which it participates with. This is not mere relinquishment, submission, or mimicry. Whenever you use a common metaphor (such as of the sun’s outward light for inner mental illumination), well worn though it be to a fine stone, that is participation: whenever you write in rhyme or meter, it is participation; whenever you respond to beauty and love, or disgust and horror by creativity designed to recreate them in some sense, that is also participation. Participation makes us belong; rebellion keeps us from belonging in the wrong spaces and in the wrong company. It would follow that wisdom is rebelling properly, at least in part. We hold on to the good and we relinquish the lesser.

Thus, the individual is formed where participation and rebellion co-labor to create new things in the world which relate to that world of which we are a part. The individual fails to some extent inasmuch as this process is unconscious without ever having come to light to the conscious self. Once it is noticed, it is right, even necessary, that it slip back beneath the depths and work through the fingertips unknown. But it must be known and then be let to take its place. One can never have full control of their mind: most of it occurs out of sight if not out of mind. We are not minds really, we reside in them. I occur within a mind; it does not occur in me. If we are outmatched by the vastness of the world external, we are also overshadowed by what’s all internal. In some sense, there is no difference between the outerness of the things we encounter physically and the innerness we encounter within. From any vantage point, all things simply appear. Our creativity reflects this appearance back out into the world, from the innerness into the outerness. It is like a gift given back to a giver of gifts. And then the thing given becomes a new gift-giver in the outer sphere. This is how culture is formed, and it is how the individual is formed.


I will note that I have not really succeeded here in describing every way in which a poet or artist or simply human is an individual or someone lacking individuality. Once a subject begins to come up, it is hard to address it fully and also bring it to some end. But I will finish by saying that I think a key practical thing to remember is that it is creativity itself, which takes place through rebellion and participation, that shapes the individual as an individual. That process is the only way to avoid being lost in meaninglessness, and it applies to all, not only to those who want to make art or poetry in particular. Probably the wisest thing to do is to make sure all of your actions and moments are aimed towards creativity, regardless of how mundane or “uncreative” such deeds may seem. Be a maker in all you do, and all you do will make you. Of course, then there is the small matter of making sure you are becoming something you should become rather than not, but that is another matter for another time.

Featured image: ‘Nikko Kaido,’ by Hasui Kawase (1930), image in the public domain.

  1. Incidentally, this observation is unchanged if one is an atheist, a Christian, a Buddhist, or of any other persuasion (just give it some thought). And so I remain intentionally neutral in tone at this point. []

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