Last week I gave up writing. For about a day. I had been given a book by one of my literary heroes, a poet I have admired from afar without ever meeting. The minute I opened it I had two reactions. The first was one of intense joy (I did not know he had even brought out a new book) and pleasure to see him on as good as form as ever. This was quickly followed by intense realisation of the poverty of my own work, the narrowness of its vision and ambition now in sharp and plain relief thanks to the book I held in my hand. I put the book down and pledged never to write another word.
I think I have always had this feeling when coming face to face with greatness, an awed version of fight or flight, a kind of reverse-jealously, unconscious acknowledgement of what I have secretly known all along, that I should leave it to those who can do it better than me. Which is of course everyone. I used to get it in maths lessons, furtively looking round in the hope that someone would be struggling as much as me. Now I get it with poetry, most acutely in the workshop that I used to belong to. I can still remember the morning when Andy Brown bought in his poem Prayer/ Why I am Happy to be in the City This Spring and basically deciding right there and then to leave the group to it, even though it was meeting in my house. Here, in front of me, was the poem that I had been trying to write for years, brilliantly alive and realised, equal to its daring, including that of remaining simple. I loved it (love it) more than I can say, proof if it were needed that poetry can do anything. I had it with Catherine Smith’s How It All Started, actually standing up and applauding in my kitchen, the pages of The Rialto which contained it curling back over its miracle-gift in slow motion. I had it a year or two ago when Ann Gray showed me My Blue Hen, not because it had just won a massive prize, but because I knew in my bones I would never write anything as good. (I actually told Ann this. I think she thought I was joking.)
To make up for my self-loathing, I am fortunate that I get reverse-giving-up by the same token. Mostly I know I am in the presence of these encourager-mentors when I start going through notebooks (any paper in fact) as though certain I might have an appointment with the proverbial front wheels of the bus the following morning. Thinking doesn’t really come into it. It is as though the world of the poem and the world I am walking through, eating and working in have become the same. I remember feeling exactly that, exactly that feeling of how-does-he-know-so-much-about-my-life, reading Ilhan Berk in a campsite in Cornwall two years ago. It isn’t about wanting to become Ilhan Berk (or James Schuyler, or John Ash), let alone write like him. It’s about discerning a rhythm, a way of looking and listening, and wanting to join in the conversation, seeing where my answer will take me, then doing everything to get out of their way before I can persuade myself to give up, exhausted.