Study Guide

What the Poets Could Have Been

by Julianna Baggott

What the Poets Could Have Been Summary


“What the Poets Could Have Been” is from Julianna Baggott’s first collection of poetry, This Country of Mothers, published in 2001. The poetry in this collection can best be defined as stories of family and of change and growth. These are poems of childhood, of parents and grandparents, of miscarriage and childbirth, and of the metamorphosis from daughter to mother. This collection is dedicated to Baggott’s mother, Glenda, and to her daughter, Phoebe, which is appropriate, since the poems are drawn from Baggott’s own memories of being a daughter and mother. “What the Poets Could Have Been” fits neatly into this collection of memories and transformation.

Like her novels, Baggott’s poetry is autobiographical. “What the Poets Could Have Been” is from chapter four of the collection, which includes poems that do not seem to fit neatly into the other four chapters of this book. The poems in this chapter are about spirituality and religion, about death and torture during war, and about being a poet. What they all have in common, though, is the poet’s response to events or people. “What the Poets Could Have Been” recognizes the journey that Baggott undertook in becoming a poet. In this poem, Baggott explores several aspects of the poet’s creative process, including the importance of imagination and creativity in producing poetry. One important aspect of “What the Poets Could Have Been” is Baggott’s conjecture regarding what poets might have done with their lives had they chosen different career paths. Baggott speculates on the role that poetry plays in the poet’s life. She also wonders what poets would have done instead had they chosen not to write. She finally wonders if paying more attention to lectures in school might have made them more content.

What the Poets Could Have Been Summary

Lines 1–5

In “What the Poets Could Have Been,” Baggott begins with the word, “if.” She repeats this word several times in the first lines of the poem and uses this repetitive format to imagine what poets might have done, had they not been poets, had they been able to hold their minds in check and not let their thoughts drift beyond what was expected of them. The “if” is what might have been. The title of the poem makes clear that the subject is an exploration of what poets could have been, had they been different; it points to this poem’s inquiry.

Baggott makes the differences between poets and other people clear in her opening lines. When the minds of people not destined to be poets are distracted, their thoughts turn to grocery lists. The minds of such people wander to commonplace errands of the day, trying to remember if they need milk and eggs or shoe polish. When most people smell the scent of lemons, they wonder if they need to buy more. But that is not true of the poet. According to Baggott, when poets smell lemons, they associate the scent with memories, in this case with a mother’s hands that smelled of lemon. In the first line, Baggott refers to poets as a group of people who get distracted in similar ways. She repeats the use of plural pronouns throughout these first few lines, using “they’d” and repeating the use of “their” several times. Baggott suggests that poets share certain traits. The use of “if they’d” or “if they” establishes both the imaginative possibilities and the connectedness of all poets, who can be identified through their inability to be commonplace or like the majority.

Lines 6–10

In line 6, Baggott uses the conditional “if” to refer to those times when the poets’ minds drifted in school, such as when the shop teacher, Mr. Twardus, lectures during shop class or when the home economics teacher, Mrs. Neff, expects careful attention to the hem of the apron being sewn. It is easy for a student’s mind to wander from a teacher’s lecture, and it frequently happens, but in these two examples, Baggott leads the reader to consider that for poets, this inability to pay attention to teachers is a sign of their creativity or of the talent that will be developed after high school. If the future poets had listened more in school, they might not have developed into poets later on.


Line 11 repeats the use of “if” to...

(The entire section is 1030 words.)