The Poet as Revolutionary: Thoughts on Presence

Be a Pencil%2C Not an Eraser.    Gregory Alan Elliott - The Poet as Revolutionary: Thoughts on Presence
Photo by Alan Levine.

I believe that being a poet is a revolutionary act. Please note, I did not say writing or reading poetry. I said, “Being a poet.” For me, this means witnessing the world and one’s self with poetic vision. Poetic vision includes a potency, a quality of existence that both descends and transcends beyond self into a vivid attunement that, regardless of pleasant or unpleasantness, brings aliveness and vitality. To me, poetic vision is a form of presence. I believe that in this day and age in which we are treated like lab rats by the media, the government, and even psychology, trained to serve unseen powers that hold no interest in the well-being of the soul, being present is more than a state of being: it is a revolutionary act.

Allen Ginsberg said, “To gain your own voice, forget about having it heard. Become a saint of your own province and your own consciousness.”

To me, this points to the rightfully exalted utility of being a poet. Writing poetry is not just about being heard by others. Although it is likely that once we have found a precious personal truth, sharing it will be enlightening to others, the best part of being a poet is the rediscovery of how we really feel, what we really think, and therefore, who we really are. Oftentimes, a natural by-product of this self-discovery is a self-excommunication from the church we signed up for in blind faith and by engineered consent. To “become a saint of your own province” is to renounce misleading voices and plant your own flag in your own soil—to establish your own symbol for your coat of arms. It is like naming one’s self. Oftentimes, expanded consciousness and enlivened presence results in a more intentional act of self-governance. Once again, an act like this is revolutionary.

I believe that there is poetry in every single person on the planet. However, I don’t believe that everybody has faith that they can be a poet. Like so many other commodified things in our lives, poetry has become identified much more about the end product than the quality of living associated with fluid language. I believe this is why people don’t think they have access to the poet within. This has me thinking about presence, and how we view presence collectively. Although people like Martin Buber and Jim Bugental have explored the dimensions of presence in a more vast and concentrated way, the exposure of their definitions to the general public is limited. I decided to look up “presence” in the dictionary, and here is what I discovered.

The 2001 Edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary lists four definitions for the word presence. These definitions are qualified as nouns. They are as follows:

“the state or act of existing, occurring, or being present in a place or thing.”

“a person or thing that exists or is present in a place but is not seen.”

“a group of people, esp. soldiers or police, stationed in a particular place,” and;

“the impressive manner or appearance of a person.”

The first three definitions refer directly to existence. The second and fourth refer to the quality of existence. Still, I reference the dictionary because my aim is to juxtapose the common use of and understanding of the word presence with the more nuanced, soulfully informed use of the term.

My first bone of contention with the popular use of the word presence is that it is being qualified as a noun rather than a verb. Nouns are tangible entities, and can still be used as things. A verb is more active. In The Art of the Psychotherapist, Bugental (1987) refers to presence as an active state. Here, we see presence in the popular culture being viewed as a static and even anonymous entity of existence, and the challenge I see so many people in this world facing is the struggle to become more active in their way of being in the world, at least when they become aware enough to know that they want something different. It is a problem of agency, and our agency is an inextricable act of our being.

When we actively use language as a tool to expand our way of understanding our experience and the result is enlightenment, we have implicitly rebelled against a system that wants to keep us comfortably numb. I do not use the term “enlightenment” to mean something fantastically esoteric and cathartic, but rather basic and essential to our everyday existence. This enlightenment does not have to appear on the gargantuan wings of a holy angel, but rather in simply pausing long enough to look closer and with all five senses, curious and receptive, willing to transcend what we were told we should see and into ourselves. It adds more dimensions to what we see. Poetry can help us do this because it requires two things: if we actually write, the very time and space that the powers that be otherwise require, and if we are concerned with what it is we strive to see, then our concentrated attention, i.e., presence. This is the presence that has been stolen from us systematically through the years.

With that said, anybody can do this if he or she invests in him- or herself. They just have to risk looking within, really looking out, and then seeing how the two interface. The change is glorious, and the first step in global change. The act is revolutionary. Therefore, anybody can be a revolutionary. Anybody can be a poet.

Buber, M. (1958). I and thou: Second edition. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Bugental, J.F.T (1987). The art of the psychotherapist. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

— Candice Hershman

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