Essays

The Identity of the Modern Poet as Landscape

In Portrait of the Poet as Landscape, A.M. Klein engages with the identity of the poet and the role of his art. The poem is a künstlerroman, which sees the maturity of an artist against the decaying modern society around him. The insignificance and irrelevance of the poet in the modern age is stressed. It is not clear if the poet is living or dead—it does not matter for “We are sure only that from our real society / he has disappeared; he simply does not count” (Klein 15-16). Klein places the poet in juxtaposition with the public and the reader by using the plural person pronoun: “we” and “our” against the disappeared poet. The public does not care about the poet, nor does the poet appear to care about himself: he is “incognito, lost, lacunal” (Klein 28).

Hence, it would appear the poet has no identity in “our real society.” The simile “like the mirroring lenses forgotten on a brow / that shine with the guilt of their unnoticed world” suggests the blame is partially the poet’s (Klein 30-31). Klein indicates the poet functions as a reflection of his society, so if society is apathetic, that is partially because the poet is apathetic.

Klein personifies poetry as a female body that provides the poet with love and knowledge. For Klein, this is the purpose of art: to defeat ignorance and bring “the shock of belated seeing” (50). While the language is sincere, “a first love it was,” there is a sense of self-indulgence that becomes increasingly obvious and is responsible for the lethargy of artists (Klein 44).

Klein prescribes a social responsibility to the artist. The modern artist, however, seems to be completely self-absorbed by their art, at the expense of the public. The image of the artists who “curl themselves in a comma” suggests a synthesis resulting in art for art’s sake with no clear role (Klein 69).

From here, it is not surprising that the artist’s identity begins to unravel. He does not have a place in society, and as a result, his art is purposeless. This is particularly in contrast to “the local tycoon who for a hobby / plays poet” (Klein 119-110).The businessman is valued by modern society and as thus, is able to inform society on a superficial level, “playing” poet. The poet begins to think of himself as an imposter, crucially, not just as an imposter poet, but as an imposter human being, with all “his personal biography, / his gestures, his moods” (Klein 102-103).Klein powerfully links the poetic identity with the human experience.

The main copula “to be” is repeated here to emphasize the poet’s search for identity and meaning. Klein suggests fame determines identity in the modern society, but is irrelevant to the poet. It is this understanding that allows the poet to fully embrace his art even though he is ostracized. The poet is able to accept the irreconcilability of modern society, himself and his art. The poet understands that art is the creation of his own landscape and reality, one that allows “new forms to life, anonymously, new creeds” that compete and complement with modern society (Klein 156). He becomes the landscape by accepting his own invisible omnipresence, “until they map, / not the world’s, but his own body’s chart!” (Klein 144-145)

The poem ends on a powerful image of guarded optimism. The poet has embraced his obscurity, and has not given up his art, “in his secret shines / like phosphorus. At the bottom of the sea”  (162-163). The artist has discovered his identity: as his own reality and landscape, at once connected to and separate from modern society.

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