I always think of myself as working at a rock face. Ninety days out of ninety five, it’s just a rock face. The other five days, there’s a bit of silver, a bit of base metal in it. I’m reasonably consistent, and the consistency is a help to me. It helps me stay in contact with my failure rate, and unless you have a failure rate that vastly exceeds your success rate, you’re not really in touch with what you are doing as a poet. The danger of inspiration is that it is a theory that redirects itself towards the idea of success rather than the idea of consistent failure. And all poets need to have a sane and normalized relationship with their failure rate.
Eavan Boland, Sleeping with Monsters: Conversations with Scottish and Irish Women Poets, p.80
One of my all-time favourite utterances about writing poetry, by anyone, is the one you see above, by the Irish poet Eavan Boland from the wonderful collection of interviews, Sleeping with Monsters.
Time and again it has rescued and reminded me of the core truth about writing poems: that it does not come easily, and is never really perfected, let alone mastered. If I do finish anything it is only after long periods of sitting, fiddling and moaning, taking a word out here, putting the same word back in again, removing it, then ditching the poem altogether a day or a week or a year later. And then maybe salvaging a line, or half of one, and beginning to build from there. It isn’t pretty.
Another reason I love the Boland quote: it is loads better and connects much more with the reality of the grind of it than the now famous line of her compatriot Samuel Beckett: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
Most of all, I love that it warns about inspiration (Picasso said ‘[It] exists, but it has to find you at work’). I think waiting for it to strike is my single biggest failing as a poet, second only to working when there is clearly no chance of any arriving.
Hello Anthony, I actually worked in a nickel mine for a time, at Creighton Mine, Number 3 Shaft.
We would bore into the rock using jackleg drills that rattled your teeth. The ore was blasted from the face, scraped from the drift by giant skulking scoop trams, dumped into crushers, and then fired in the blast oven of a smelter. For every bit of treasure salvaged, there were tones of glowing slag dumped by trains into the dark night.
It was a dangerous job, where you had to secure the back (ceiling) using a vertical drill called a stoper. Roof bolts and wire mesh helped to prevent the back from falling in, yet many men were still injured or were killed.
At the end of each shift, we would cough up black stuff, nothing like in the coal mines, but it was still a nagging worry. We would hang our dirty and sweaty clothes up in a “dry”, where you’d hoist it up like a flag on a flagpole, and then we’d go back home to sleep. I so admired the grit of those miners.
I suppose that mining and poetry are metaphors for life.
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…inspiration has to find us at work…
Thank you. I needed to read your words right now as I feel drained of all inspiration, ready to throw the towel.
This spoke to me. I was beginning to think that I was the only one who struggled at times with my Christian poetry writing. Thank you for this clarification that I’m not. God Bless you. Tina ❤
I’m not a poet so no opinion on the poetry stuff. I do love the phrase “inspiration has to find us at work” it fits life as I know it in a broader sense.
Wow! I really enjoyed this. I haven’t been having any inspiration to write for the past four days, but now I know I have to be patient and keep working. The little I write is enough. As long as I can get back on my foot and improve.
Thank you so much!
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