I spent some time this weekend trying to re-engage with Poetry. Trying to rediscover the spark that lit my interest when I was sixteen, the initial rush of enthusiasm and awe I felt when I first picked up Larkin or Sexton or Plath or Keats. The same enthusiasm I had when I started off at Under Graduate level and took with me to Post Graduate studies.
In an attempt to rekindle this I picked up ‘Paradise Lost’ by Milton and started to go through it. I hadn’t even got passed the first book before I put it down. This is a book I read voraciously only two years ago. What has changed? I moved on to Shelley’s Prose (‘On Love’ and a ‘Defence of Poetry’), but retired them in favour of a Top Gear repeat and a cup of tea. I mention these not to be showy about my book shelf or to try and convince any one that I am particularly erudite or classically trained. The fact that I picked up these, and nothing from this century, says something. It highlights what I consider to be a problem for someone, like me, attempting to write in the “modern” era. I use the phrase “modern” as meaning simply, ‘up to date’ or ‘as is being written or performed currently’ and not as a reference to Modernism or Post-Modernism.
The problem as I see it is threefold.
Firstly, there is the danger of stagnation. A few years back I showed some work to Robert Sheppard, who told me that although “there is a talent there” that I was not very modern. And as a result the “work” and any potential progression would suffer. This was a critique I rejected out of hand, as a moody teenager is often wont to do. However, looking back I can see what he means. He wasn’t, as I originally thought, criticising what I was doing. He wasn’t telling me that I was garbage and should reconsider my “vocation”. He was merely stating the facts as he saw them. And at the present moment, a rather obvious fact. Because I did not heed this free advice, and I didn’t appreciate that fact that he had taken his time to read some poems slid under his door, my “work” suffered. It stagnated. It may have progressed in terms of theme and vocabulary but it was, and I feel still is, firmly rooted in the past. In the Larkinesque style of “blokes talking to other blokes in a pub”. And this stunting cannot be blamed solely on my decision not to take Creative Writing at under graduate level. It comes from my own stubbornness and the mistaken belief that I knew better than someone who has been working in, and for, Poetry since the 1970’s and has run several successful small print magazines. Also, his new book, “The Complete Twentieth Century Blues” is out now and I need to buy it when I have some spare money.
Secondly, with this stagnation comes the belief in ones own ability. Which is more often than not, totally mistaken. This was shown most clearly at the International Bar’s Open Mic Night a few weeks ago. The current guardian of the Open Mic Night, Stephen James Smith, is a poet of the Modern Era. He is what Modern Poetry should be. Accessible, funny and very talented. He learns the poems off by heart and apart from looking impressive it shows he absolute dedication to his art. He travels many miles gigging and getting his work “out there”. This is something I do not do. Nor is it something I would particularly want to do. For a number of reasons, chiefly that I find it terrifying and the old excuse, “Larkin did not need to”. But, “Ah” I hear you say “Larkin was a Genius”. I have started to enter competitions which I do not in all honesty expect to win, no false modesty, I just regret the choices I made in the submissions.
At the Lucan Creative Writers group they are some really good writers and poets. Some are award winners, or have been commended – which is almost as good. And I presume works as a great affirmation of ones own talent. These poets are again doing stuff that I could not do, one in particular has a knowledge of form and of the technical aspects that puts me to shame. They are forward facing poets, though they do seem to reflect the past in that they understand the past and move onwards. They are like Janus, where as I am the woman who looked back as Gomorrah burned. This lack of knowledge, on my part, is endemic of the lack of spark I feel at the moment. I need to get reacquainted with theory. But not classical theory, modern interpretations and modern ideas. As one of my tutors complained during my MA (not to me thankfully) “No one is using critics that are still alive”. How can you move forward with both feet and hands in the past? This leaves any belief that what I am doing is right for me at the moment baseless. It only highlights the fact that I am out of touch. I am regurgitating familiar styles.
Thirdly, I have not developed my own poetic voice. The journey to this place, this absolute individuality. A poetic Nirvana. Is different for everyone who picks up a pen or sits at an empty word processing document. To hark back to Larkin, he spent much of his Juvenile years copying Hardy. Keats spent most of his brief career alluding to, and copying, Spencer. Wilfred Owen only found his voice whilst he was recuperating from Shellshock and met Siegfried Sassoon. And so forth, and so on ad infinitum. But these examples are at best a slight digression. It was explained more eloquently than I can by one of the writers in Lucan. “Each poet has a poetical mentor” this is someone they look to in order to inform their own writing and form their own poetical self. This process is evolutionary; you start of as a simple organism – writing because you enjoy it. Then you develop style, structure and then finally – much like the Ape standing on its hind legs and using tools – you have your own voice. But like your own genetic code, you bare resemblance to those that have gone before. Be it a familial nose, or a particular turn of phrase. It is a level of foolishness to say that once I find “my voice” I will rekindle what is at the moment eludes me. However, since I am not reading new Poetry, or even enough Poetry, this development is stagnating.
However, as I have previously stated I do not believe that I should disregard the old poets that piqued my interest in the Art form. There will always be a place for them. And a lot can still be gained from reading them, just not in isolation. I have used myself as exclusively as an example, and this form of self criticism is essentially egocentric. But I believe that any artist, successful, emerging or at whatever stage cannot write in either a vacuum or with their eyes drawn only backwards.
So, what next? Give up? Hardly ever likely to be an option. I must, as a matter of urgency, start to scour bookshops, the internet and journals for something new. The slightly exciting prospect of this is that I can gain new insight and discover new styles and poets and re-ignite the passion that I once had. I can reformulate long standing poetical beliefs and theories; I can critical asses my own Poetical vision (for what it is). As Confucius said, “the journey of a thousand miles must start with a single step”.
Any suggestions, negative or positive, are as always welcome.