Why Being an Obscure Poet Isn’t Such a Bad Life After All

By Charles P. Ries

I awoke at midnight in a confused sweat. Racked again by a poet’s ultimate existential dilemma; no, not a new and more powerful metaphor, but is it better to be a famous poet or an obscure poet? Some would argue this is actually a distinction without a difference, but not me. It was a choice. I would make it. It would become my self-delusional, self-fulfilling prophecy.

With only the neon light of Ray’s Romper Room Bar across the street to illuminate my garret, my poet’s soul screamed, “What is it you want for men—fame or obscurity?” Much to my amazement, a clear voice responded, “Are you nuts! Obscure baby—be obscure!”  The clarity of this audio hallucination gave me pause. I pray for all kinds of things and God never replies, but now, to this simple request, I get a voice in the dimness of night. It made me wonder if God was a frustrated poet?

At a rare loss for words, I did what all poets do. I opened my dictionary. I found Webster’s definition puzzling. Was it a sign or a slap in the face? Of undistinguished or humble station or reputation: an obscure poet. So faintly perceptible as to lack clear delineation; indistinct. Not readily noticed or seen; inconspicuous.

I wondered if faintly perceptible might be in my poetic future. I needed to weigh the pros and cons. I needed to talk to a famous poet. But this also presented the dilemma of figuring out if there were any, and if they were famous enough. I thought of Billy Collins. I could give him a call. He’s sort of famous. But then I remembered that a lot of serious poets think he’s kind of a lightweight—too funny to be taken seriously.

I reflected on where I might find other possibly famous poets. I heard there were some academic types that were supposed to be famous—well at least to other academic types. Of course, there were those elite poets who had climbed out of the independent small press, the cellar of poetry, and racked up all kinds of contest wins, but small press writers thought contests were a sell out. They were a slap in the face of those who toil beneath the under belly of the poetic ocean. They believed writing poetry was its own reward. I had also heard of poets who had accumulated whopping big publication records—their work having appeared in hundreds of magazines and anthologies.  Maybe they were famous, but then I discovered some poets felt these writers were just a bunch of suck-ups to publishers.

This figuring out whether to be famous or obscure was starting to get complicated. So after a bottle of wine (the muse juice of confused, neither famous, nor obscure poets), I returned to bed. 

At 3 a.m. I awoke again. There was a smell of existential crisis in the air. I was wakened by a blinding light coming from my tiny garret bathroom. It was an extraterrestrial kind of light if you know what I mean. Not being sure what to do, I sat there as the spirit of a dead poet hovered toward me. I wasn’t sure which dead poet it might be, and wondered if the really famous poets are all dead ones. 

“Your name is Charles P. Ries the poet?"

“That’s me. Are you a literary agent?”

“No. Don’t you wish. I am a dead poet. This teleporting can be tricky, and I don’t want to share the wisdom of the ages with the wrong guy. So here’s what I've got for you. We’ve been listening to your prayers. We dead poets keep a close eye on all you knuckleheads down here. We want you to know that obscurity is not a way station on the way to fame; it’s the destination. It’s right where you ought to be. No kissing ass. No having to be politically correct. No headaches about not being famous, whatever the hell that is. Just the wide open spaces of being and nothingness, you, your pen and paper.”

“Can it be that simple?”

“It is, little sentient earthling brother. Thinking too much, worrying about rules, trying to please the tribe….well, it slows a poet down. Think obscure, little poetry buddy. You go be obscure.”

The dead poet apparition hovered back to my bathroom and closed the door. I heard a muffled flush, saw a poof of light, and the dimness returned.

The following morning I woke with a Zen sense of calm and wondered if I’d dreamed it all, or if it was time to cut back on the muse juice. To remind me of my night visitor, I wrote obscure on the bathroom mirror with a bar of soap. As I gazed at myself, I saw a smile grow across my lips. I reflected on the liberation of not trying so hard to be all things to all people. I reflected on the time honored “shit just happens while you’re living life” and wondered if I could be happy being obscure. Yes, just maybe I could.

There is a great freedom in sailing toward a horizon marked, Famously Obscure Poet. Anyone who writes poetry will be welcomed aboard that ship—no questions asked, no poetic passport needed. You are welcome to cross over to the obscure side.
Charles P. Ries lives as an obscure poet in Milwaukee, WI. He is faintly perceptible and proud of it.