On ‘Goodbye to being a poet’

Just over a year ago I wrote a blog post talking about my ‘tired frame of mind’ and intention to take a blogging holiday until April or May of this year. I had just published two books and had spent a fair bit of the autumn on the road promoting them. I was beginning to wonder if I might write anything ever again. Like everyone else reading this blog, I had no idea how much Covid-19 was about to change absolutely everything.

As I reported at the time, I wrote to several good writer-friends for their counsel as to what I should be doing next. To my amazement, they all replied, some with lengthy advice, some with a mere line (look at your old notebooks).

The longest reply came from a very old friend I see barely once a century and whose inventiveness and authority basically make me want to give up writing and take up truck driving each time they bring out a new book. They said: Give up being a poet. Stop blogging for a while. What you are going through is normal. The post-new-book-blues. And whatever you do, don’t force it.

Sage words indeed. But they went further. You could try reducing what you read and go for depth instead of range. Forget poetry magazines, the online world. Just read four poets. Someone old. Someone from another culture. Someone you’ve never read before. Someone in translation. They explained that this is the approach that has usually worked for them, in the past.

I jumped at this idea. Pretty much on a whim, I chose a prominent US poet whose work I had never really got to grips with. Ditto, I chose good old, dead old John Donne. An African American poet whose work I am ashamed to say I had read only in patches. And a Dutch poet I had heard mentioned on a podcast driving home one night after seeing my parents.

The results were mixed. I bow to no person in my admiration for the late Tony Hoagland’s essays, but having read and re-read his piece on Louise Glück alongside the poems, I still found myself floundering. I just could not get into them. There. I’ve said it. I failed. Months later they gave her the Nobel. So much for good taste. Or otherwise. Go figure.

The John Donne episode I don’t even want to mention. I just could not get past my ‘skinny/ seventeen dissatisfied’ self reading him with bafflement and again at university. I wrote terrible essays on him and was rightly told that they were. And I could not get past this. The English masters at school, whom I normally found easy to please. The one university tutor I liked and who took an interest. I failed (them) again. The second-hand copy I had bought went back to being second-hand in a matter of weeks.

As I read, I realised the project was fast becoming more about shame and failure (past as well as present) than it was about reading, or even being (or not) a poet. Just as I began to explore and enjoy the work of Gwendolyn Brooks and Toon Tellegen. I decided to stop. To pause. Not to quit. But to put the project on hold for a bit. I jumped into novels, into essays. I discovered the prose poem.

And weirdly, and completely by surprise (!), I found myself writing again. I am still not sure what it is that these things are. I want to say no more about them than that. But they do exist (in pencil, in notebooks) in the same world as me and at the same time. They have not moved to the inky stage yet, let alone the typed. (That was another bit of advice my friend gave me: Delay Typing Anything Out. For a person who almost certainly has undiagnosed ADHD this is very painful.)

There may be a moral to this tale. (When you stop looking for the thing you are looking for, that is when you will find it. Or: just be kind to yourself for once. Why do you beat yourself up the whole time? You wouldn’t treat your best friend like this…) There may not. All I know is the tired frame of mind is not quite as intense as it was. My grief? Absolutely. That is not going anywhere soon. Ditto my anger at certain politicians. In the meantime, I continue to write rubbish, the wind a little less howling than it was earlier, sudden sun through clouds.

13 Comments

  1. Wonderful to read this today. I love
    the honesty of the advice and the
    turns of your continuing journey.

    The words about notebooks and pencil are visceral.

    Wow!
    Thank you for all of it.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. The advice of others is sometimes perfect, sometimes not suitable at all for one’s state of mind or need. Glad you eventually found your own way forward, not trying to please others, but seeking and finding what nourished and guided you into a place of writing again. Excellent!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I recognise all of this. Not with quite that intensity. But yes, I recognise it. Throw in the fact that I’ve just started chemo, and I find I can’t read stuff that I thought was like me thinking aloud. I took David Constantine to the clinic last week…new collection…because I’d loved the opening sequence. And then found I couldn’t make sense of it. Ditto all my drafts of the last three months. AA tells me what to do. Serenity prayer. Accept it. It is what it is. Let it be. The three most useful words of the last 10 horrible months. Much love. It’ll be right.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, John. I appreciate them hugely.I was sorry to read about your treatment on your site. And again here. DC is another poet I have never quite clicked with. More shame, more fool me -they just gave him the Queen’s Gold Medal as you know. The lack of concentration you describe is what led me, post-treatment, to starting my notebook of poems, which led to this blog, which led to the anthology. Quite a process. I hold you in my thoughts. With gratitude as ever, Anthony.

      Like

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