If you write poetry (and I assume that if you do, you are also actively engaged in reading it), sooner or later Poetry Exhaustion is going to happen to you. By Poetry Exhaustion I mean the complete lack of that shock of recognition you’ve always been able to count on from a favourite unputdownable book of poems. Or the sudden knowledge that the poems you have been working on for the last two months are certainly not your best work and actually not even worth keeping (though you do, in case).
It is normal to run out of steam, for the language to dry up, and for formerly exciting poets to suddenly appear dull. The good news is that there are ways, not of avoiding Poetry Exhaustion, but of dealing with it so as to lessen its impact.
The first and most fundamental of these is to adopt an open attitude of mind: towards reading poets you have not read before; to writing in styles and/or voices which are new to you; to varying your writing routines. (Ann Sansom once said to me that running a bath was an ideal activity for the latter: see if you can get a first draft done before the bathwater overflows.) Another key attitude is what Ken Smith once called ‘absolute patience’: ‘mooch[ing] about…mucking about in a library…going on a journey; finding silence; entering places where English is not spoken; sleeping a lot and dreaming…until the poem begins to nudge’ (from How to Publish Your Poetry, Peter Finch, 1985).
There is another kind of Poetry Exhaustion, different in circumstance and intensity to the everyday variety I have mentioned. This can occur when difficult events in our lives (death, separation, illness) conspire to close down all effort of concentration towards the fresh look and listen that poetry can reward us with. This is also natural enough. Speaking from personal experience of cancer, the very last thing I wanted to do after each of my chemotherapy treatments was to pick up a book of poetry. ‘Aren’t you writing about it?’ my friends asked. I was, in prose, but not until I had recovered did I feel poetry returning to me.
There is a third kind of Poetry Exhaustion, even more serious perhaps. This is the bone-dry, lost-in-the-desert variety, which, unlike its cousins, is completely avoidable. The mistake I made after recovering from cancer was to exaggerate the importance of the praise I received for The Year of Drinking Water, a pamphlet I produced in support of the Exeter Leukaemia Fund, the charity which finances the haematology unit where I was treated. These poems seemed to affect those who came into contact with them very directly. To receive their heartfelt and immediate words of affirmation meant a great deal to me (and still does), especially in the context of having lived through such a traumatic experience. But, ridiculously, I found myself expecting the same kind of affirmation in the rest of my life in poetry. In other words, I began looking to poetry for rewards that are not within its gift. The writing has to be enough.
Experience should have taught me that praise in this field is rare. Anne Lamott describes looking for this as giving cocaine to your ego. It is fatal. Because when the emails ceased arriving (as they always do), I was left not with the surety of having done a difficult job to the best of my ability, but with a growing resentment and certainty that people’s earlier responses had been insincere. My second mistake was to get angry. Onto this spark of anger I poured fuel: that the merits of poetry were illusory and a waste of my time and talent. And that is how I was prepared to leave matters.
What snapped me out of my stupidity was again illness, not mine this time, but a friend’s. Lucy Mason was a designer and maker of textile wall-hangings. She was diagnosed with lung cancer a few weeks before my remission began. She endured her illness for over two years with grace, courage and humour, always in hope that she would get better, but always aware she might not. Eventually the news came through that it was a case of when, not if, she would die. This is what it took to rouse me from my self-imposed, childish refusal to believe in what Seamus Heaney calls ‘the power and scope of poetry’. I began writing a poem for Lucy, as a present for her, taking the title of one of her wall-hangings as my starting point. A race against time (more serious than running a bath), I wrote at traffic lights, in the dark, during meetings and at mealtimes. I’m pleased to say that she was able to read the finished poem in the days before even reading was lost to her. I am not proud to relate, however, that it took the early death of a friend to reconnect me to the art-form that I love so much.
If poetry is a great love in your life and you feel that love ebbing away: take courage, for it will return. Try running a bath, or reading John Ash.
I am still in the foothills of my recovery. For the last eighteen months I have mostly been reading poems in translation: Rutger Kopland’s Memories of the Unknown, Piotr Sommer’s Continued, Marin Sorescu’s The Bridge; and a poet who is new to me, the wonderful George Messo’s Entrances. I’ve also read some old favourites (Kaplinski, Tranströmer). As a friend recently said to me – when you have been angry with the Bible begin again at the last place God spoke to you:
In the empty block
across the lake from here
you notice first a light
go on go off go on again.
You wonder who
at this late hour
stirs in rooms
And then yourself, alone,
gazing from a room
towards the light
across the lake from here.
George Messo (‘The Beautiful Apartments’)
First published in Smiths Knoll, 2009