Monday, June 29, 2009

The Desire for the New

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.


  1. Rachel Fox's and Emerging Writer's blogs both have great poetry links etc, not the worst place to start - they're modern, they're all free...

  2. You underestimate your talent. We've heard your stuff - it's good, and it's your own voice - which may develop into quite a different one, or not.
    You've got the drive, the inspiration and the appetite. Most of all you have the years ahead. Enjoy the search.

  3. I also think you are being too hard on yourself! I think all the poems I've heard from you are sufficiently modern - your poem 'Debt' was very good and very pertinent to recessionary times. It is definitely good to read more modern stuff alongside the classics you love - you don't have to choose between them!

  4. I agree completely with DD and DQ, you are being way too hard on yourself. I think you have a distinctive voice and a wonderful dark humour that kind of reflects you (or what I know of you) as a person... I for one have really liked them all and am genuinely not just saying that. (now I am utterly ignorant about the classics and the rules etc. but in some ways I don't think it matters)
    ps. is really refreshing honesty to hear someone else talk about the 'inner demons' as we all have them...!

  5. Belief in ones own ability...lethal. Once we can keep that reigned in I think we're on the right path.

  6. I think it is useful to now and again analyse where you are at, so to speak. Thanks for the comments, and for reading, Niamh - next time you are at a reading can you let me know and i can see if I can make it. UB it is all right to feel like the greatest ever when you are going to the mike to perform. Just not after. Thanks again for the comments

  7. Nah man feeling like the greatest ever before is my least favorable way to be for me. The nerves I find is where I get the balls from, without the nerves and fear you've arrogance, and then you'll stink.

  8. UB, I think you're right. I mean we have all seen people who are the next best thing only in their minds.

  9. By the way, I think there's a big difference between self belief and arrogance... I think you do need the former, in bucketloads, and no one can have too much of it, the latter is something that you may have flashes of but it will always trip you up, and leave you looking like a wally, so I think it kind of polices itself.

  10. Yeh you do, just say to your self once "I rock" and then go up.