How To Be a Poet

Your reference to Crossett’s poem is most timely. As it happens we just finished J. R. R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion in the “Oxford Inklings” honors seminar I am teaching this term, and during the course of exploring this book we had occasion to discuss Tolkien’s important essay “On Fairy-Stories”, in which he describes the “sub-creative art” of Fantasy as a “making by the law in which we’re made”. Crossett would have wholeheartedly agreed with this definition, as his poem clearly shows, and I’m therefore minded to post the poem below for any of my students who may chance by Anamnesis in the days ahead.

For those who’ve never heard my stories about him, John Crossett was my classics mentor at Cornell College, and without doubt the greatest teacher I ever had; my Breviary of English Usage, based in part on his own demanding rules, is dedicated to this “master of the Trivium“. As I’ve told many of my own students over the years, Crossett was someone who left you convinced that Plato’s Socrates was no mere invention—that there could in fact be a real human being who was able to see down the dialectical path fifty or even a hundred moves in advance. Meeting him was like being struck by intellective lightning, and I’m happy to say I never recovered!

As for what occasioned the poem, there was this annual auction at Cornell—a benefit for some charity, as I recall—and the faculty would offer any number of curiosities to the highest bidder, from odds and ends acquired during their travels to homemade dinners with exotic cuisine. Crossett’s offering was always a sonnet, which he promised to write in one week on whatever subject the lucky bidder might specify. I was determined to secure one of these poems, and as fortune would have it my bid won the day. I was also determined to be clever, and if possible to extract this master’s secret—or at least one of his secrets—so I asked for a poem on the subject of how to be a poet.

I can still remember the rather chiding look in Crossett’s eye and his instant response: “Do you really want the poem to be about ‘how to be a poet’ or should it be about ‘how to become a poet’?” Obviously I should have chosen the second topic—seeing that I was not yet and am still not a poet!—but this nineteen-year-old wasn’t about to give the impression he hadn’t thought to make this subtle distinction himself! In any case, what I got, well within the promised single week, was the following, a deceptively simple piece of writing that I find myself still learning from these many years later.

How to Be a Poet

John M. Crossett

Starting with what the Lord of Logos made,
Logically you fake a paradigm
Of accidents essentially so real
Your logos comes to see a world of being.

With what the Logos seriously played,
You work at putting reason into rhyme,
Conceptualizing what you really feel
Till logos comes to be a world of seeing.

The contradictory is not allayed
Within eterne eterminable time:
The secret that the poet would conceal,
Revealing doing signifying dreeing.

As paradigm surpasses model, so
Great work are greater than their authors know.

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