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.