“A true friend stabs you in the front.”

Oscar Wilde

Edited and compiled by Robert Sward

It Takes One to Know One:
Joan Houlihan on Poets' Friendships

Poets are friends in the same way madmen are friends—expansively, creatively, emotionally, and with very little recognition of the other’s reality.

No matter that they have conventional lives, drive SUVs, have 2.5 children—or, conversely, that they sleep standing up in doorways, go to AA meetings, or tend elephants—poets are united by their hunger for transcendence, their drive to find the secret source of language and their curiosity about human nature. And they are equally hungry for source material, going as deep as necessary—even into each other’s skulls—to get it. Poets willingly engage in folie-a-deux, and, along with a mutual recognition of their outsider status, this enables an intimacy not possible between non-poets.

At the same time, two poets are unlikely to be capable of carrying on the typical activities of friendship—calling regularly, checking on each other’s “real” lives, participating in normal activities together (without terminal sneering), exchanging thoughts and concerns on everyday issues, and so on, thereby limiting, if not extinguishing, the friendship itself. A poet's friendship, therefore, is deep but narrow. Like a poem, the friendship exists in a space outside of the everyday, goes deep quickly, and then dissolves in the humdrum of days for lack of regular re-visiting and appreciation.

I know I can turn to poet friends with the weirdest emotional states and never meet a judgmental remark. Poets cannot judge—they know better than that. More than any other types, poets have “been there, done that”, if not actually, then in their imaginations (totally equivalent states to a poet). As Roethke said, “Nothing human is alien to me.” Maybe not a statement of fact for some poets, but certainly a wish for all. And, like Keats’s concept of negative capability, or Eliot’s of the poet’s lack of a personality, the friendship between two poets thrives on imaginative projections onto each other’s essentially empty screens. Poets can entertain one another for hours projecting their own neuroses onto the other, interpreting each other’s childhoods, dissecting the last emotional drama/trauma lived through, drilling for past lives, dreams, other people’s horrible childhoods/marriages, renting unwatchable artsy/freaky/trashy films, or turning to the news to speculate on the nature of evil, knowing it’s all for one good purpose: source material.

One poet friend will compel me to listen to the most melancholy rendition of “Autumn Leaves” known to man—and, as I gasp, pierced by the requisite sorrow, she says with triumphant glee: “Hurts, doesn’t it?” thereby sharing the experience as one might share a favorite dish.

Other friendly sharings include: near-death experiences, nervous breakdowns and how they grew, phobic reactions to everyday events, body-wracking desires for revenge, suicidal and/or homicidal impulses, the intractability of morbid thoughts and interior toxicity, and cleverly described encounters with emotionally dysfunctional people (preferably other, more famous, poets).

Another poet friend’s idea of a good time is to walk me through her private chamber of horrors (poverty, old age, madness, an undignified, gibbering, bag-ladyish death), have some wine, then play the poetry game—trying to fit six words picked randomly from the dictionary into a poem in 15 minutes.

Sometimes these outpourings produce verbal imagery, not-bad lines and flashing revelations—in this case, poet-friends are poets first (“Here, keep crying into this Kleenex while I grab a pen”) and friends later. Much later. With poets, it’s not I feel your pain, but rather I steal your pain and will use it in my next poem.

It’s very difficult to intentionally offend a poet despite their vaunted “sensitivity”—instead, you will offend poets only unintentionally and then remain in the dark as to the cause until years later when their book comes out. The only way to intentionally offend a poet is to suggest they've written something cliched or sickeningly wholesome. Tell them their poem is “nice” if you want to produce the kind of vibes an exorcist picks up. On the other hand, in their mad hunger for emotional truth, poets continuously offend their loved ones, trash convention, mock platitudes, show utter contempt for sacred cows and generally scrape everything down to an irreducible level. Because where a poet wants to be is at the root of things at all times. They need to get to the absolute bottom, to the origin, and they'll claw their way down there, disinterring their poetic forebears as they go, competitive even with the dead.

Yes, my friendship with poets has been one of the great joys of my life. How wonderful to know I am not the only freak of nature—just the best one.


Joan Houlihan's poems have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Fine Madness, The Spoon River Poetry Review and elsewhere. You can also see her work on Web Del Sol.

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