Thinking About Writing

Dennis O’Driscoll
n the beginning is inspiration. In which I trust. It is the creator. It fuses the elements of a poem together. It infuses mundane things with artistic potential. It is present at the conception of a poem, nurtures it and slaps it into life. It interrupts our routine mental relays with its urgent messages. It is the name we put on that force which enables us to do on Thursday what was beyond our capacity on Wednesday. It is the only begetter of poetry I know.
As with God, however, not everyone believes in inspiration.
Frank O'Connor famously emphasised the role played by perspiration in literary endeavour. George Mackay Brown, gifted and prolific in many forms, once told me that he had no faith in 'this inspiration stuff. He just clears the breakfast table each morning and gets on with the job. George writes fiction and drama as well as poetry; and these long-distance activities require imaginative stamina. Inspiration, a necessity for the lyric poet, may be a luxury for the novelist. Too many poetry collections seem inspired by nothing more than the author's desire to publish a book with his name on the cover or to keep up a poetic reputation established years before. Richard Murphy, whose exiguous output is the result of his determination not to write for the sake of writing (that pernicious species of art for art's sake) often quotes Henri Michaux to the effect that 'The mere ambition to write a poem is enough to kill it'.
None of what I am saying is intended to suggest that you don't need to work hard in order to write a poem or that inspiration will write it for you. It does occasionally happen that a poem will offer itself up without a struggle: these are arresting and exciting moments, moments which later crouchings over the blank page will aim to recapture. In most cases, inspiration followed by labour will be the norm. During the two periods - ten years apart - in which I found myself in an editorial role, I was struck by how often inspired ideas were left undeveloped in poems. Had I stayed on in the job, I would have ordered two rubber stamps, one impressing the message WORK MORE, the other READ MORE.
The question as to when work on a poem should be stopped and the scaffolding taken down is one which instinct and judgement must answer. I tend to side with Valery's view that 'A poem is
never finished; it is only abandoned'. Yet I also recognise that revising poems is like whipping cream - if ,it y~u ~ee'p it up t~ long, you will destroy the texture altogether. Whlppmg, th?ug,h ~n a different sense, might be substituted for correction In Coleridge's observation that 'Poetry, like schoolboys, by too frequent and severe correction, may be cowe? into dullness!'.
Is there a contradiction in my notion that poems need inspiration but also need revision? I don't think so. T?e mo~iv~tion to write a poem must arise from some out~of-the-ordmary mSlgh~, some moment of vision. It must not be wntten to pass the author s time and therefore to waste the reader's. One takes dictation from the Muse, one doesn't dictate to her. But one's initial jottings may be no more than the sketchiest of resumes of what she had to say you remember its urgency, its importance,. its truth, ev.e~ if you can't quite recall her exact words. In the sIlence of revI~lon.' you try to hear those words, to fill in the missing lines, to do JustIce to the initial visitation. One may, in fact, never complete the poem one's technique may not prove equal to the t~sk; one's poetic antennae may have been jammed by too much lllterference; one may ignore or flinch from the subject-matter - or it may take one
    years of experience to grow into it.     ..     ,
To write poetry in the way I have outlIned - In whIch external experience is paramount (I almost said paranormal!) requires a great deal of patience and trust. There sho~ld be no urgency about publishing a book of p.oetry - the world IS already awash with the stuff, much more of It than even the most fervent believer in reincarnation could hope to read. Far better to judge the level of your fertility by the health and survival rate of your poems than by their weight at birth or their number. It took W.S. Graha~ 15 years to hatch the ingenious 54-page plot of.Malcolm ~ooney s Land. Philip Larkin's finest collection, The Whltsun Weddzngs, (all 38 pages of it) was ten years in the making. The E~izabethan poet, Chidiock Tichborne, will be read forever on the baSIS on one poem. Randall Jarrell put it this way: 'A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thundersto~s, to be stru~k by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen tImes and he IS great'. There are plenty of good prolific poets, of course, but a Selected Poems - even from the best hands - tends to be a more impressive book than a Collected; and those unrea~ tomes of eras, with their double-columned pages of small pnnt, do not eXCIte imitation.
Over-production too often has its roots in pride or insecurity, in a dread of remarks like 'Are you still writing? I haven't seen your name anywhere lately'. My complaint, actually, is not so much about over-production as about over-publication - one needn't lead to the other. While I sympathise with Derek Mahon's hermit who has 'been working for years/on a four-line poem/about the life of a leaf, his diffidence suggests writer's block more than eclecticism. One has to take risks, to learn from the poems in the waste paper basket as well as those in the typescript, and thus be all the better prepared for the next stirring idea.
Many of the techniques of poetry can be acquired and improved through practice and emulation. What cannot be taught, what must already be in place, is an individual perspective on the world. We want the poet's own version of life, not a rehash of Dylan Thomas's or Sylvia Plath's world. The personal rhythms, obsessions, linguistic quirks which readers and reviewers may initially deprecate are the best foundations on which to build a poetic talent. The poems which the editor rejects may become your cornerstone. Seamus Heaney and Philip Larkin, one highly individual in his use of language, the other in his view of human relations, both attempted in vain to be published by The Dolmen Press. Derek Mahon's most celebrated poem, 'A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford', was rejected by a prominent poet-editor. Had their poems fulfilled editorial expectations - had they not been ahead of their time, in other words - they would have encountered no resistance. That poems do not need to be opaque to be misunderstood is an obvious conclusion to draw. In any event, no good poem is ever any more difficult than is absolutely necessary. We can only know too late if a poem is excessively obscure: that is to say, it is only after we have spent time probing and unravelling it that we can tell whether it was worth trying to comprehend in the first place.
The distinctive outlook most commonly associated with modern poetry is that of the sensibility displaced through madness, drink or repression. Much as we may honour poets like Paul Celan or Sylvia Plath, most of us would recoil from an art which couldn't accommodate and celebrate ordinary diurnal (or indeed nocturnal) experience. However peculiarly brutal they may have proved to be, it is the personal experience of poets like Ratushinskaya or Akhmatova which informs their work - and so it must be for the rest of us. In the writing of poetry, it is the quality and intensity of
the response to experience that matters. Of experience itself, there will never be a shortage. To live any life, no matter how plain and uneventful on the surface, is to undergo a range of emotions and experiences which would stretch any poetic talent to the full. And because our attitudes change or are changed, because life continually presents us with new insights and conundrums, there are always new poems to be written.
We don't need to seek out experience any more than we need to seek out sickness or sexual desire, anger or death. Peter Reading discovers poetry in tabloid newspapers, Roy Fuller in shopping expeditions, Fleur Adcock in an editor's rejection slip. In Ireland, Patrick Kavanagh was a pioneer of the poetry of 'the habitual, the banal', producing sublime verse from mundane subject-matter. As Miroslav Holub wrote:
There is poetry in everything. That is the biggest argument
against poetry.
Naturally, it will be easier to establish a reputation if one's subject-matter has inherent publicity value - hence the neglect of southern Irish poetry as compared with that of Ulster since the commencement of 'the troubles'. Topics which lend themselves to journalistic exposition will always enjoy a media advantage but this will not concern serious poetry readers (least of all if, as in Ulster, the topical poets are also talented poets). In any event, diligent readers create canons of their own and take no reputation on trust. The process of literary canonisation begins with the miracles performed through the devotion of enthusiastic readers. In the college, as in the curia, such matters are approached with more caution than passion.
Even when a poet's subject-matter lacks media appeal, it will be the element in the work most emphasised by reviewers. This is perfectly understandable because the subject-matter is the tangible part of the poem. To convey the other aspects of it (tone, atmosphere, rhythm, language) calls for quotation more than commentary. But it is a misrepresentation of poetry to suggest that it is 'about' something. I doubt if many poets outside of creative writing classes attempt to write a poem on a preordained theme. Poetry doesn't work like that. A phrase, mood, image, snatch of
music will trigger off the inspiration for a poem, the theme (if any) of which will be discovered only when it has been written.
The spirit in which poems come to be written will vary from poet to poet - and from day to day. There may be an element of praise in today's effort and of vengefulness in tomorrow's ... Definitions of poetry are always superseded by the next poem. There is, however, a consensus that poetry always tries to tell some truth. And the truth is that a poem is a lie-detector, shaming us into revising false sentiments, rejecting words which are not used honestly and naturally.
The public at large respects poetry but that respect scarcely ever extends to the point of actually reading (let alone buying) the stuff. The film, Dead Poets Society, makes a gallant effort to remind us that we each have an individual destiny and that the imaginative force of poetry can help us to unlock it. Yet we are again witnessing the lip-service mime of respect rather than the full-throated melody of poetry itself. The director's faith was too weak to allow poems to be quoted in full. After a line or two, they were snatched away from the audience; and the opportunity to create interest in a theme poem, as distinct from a theme song, was sadly lost.
If you are a reader of poetry, you ought to - you must attend to Herrick and Shakespeare and Whitman and the other poets quoted in the film. You will never understand contemporary poetry unless you do. But why, when modem art is phenomenally popular in galleries as well as salesrooms is modem poetry so little cherished? Granted that the poetry world is swarming with charlatans (closely resembling the art world in this way at least), it is still perplexing to find intelligent art-lovers unable to respond to any poetry other than that which they remember from school and which fuels nostalgia for regular metres and pre-industrial simplicities. Modem poetry is attacked for sounding like prose, a jibe which overlooks the fact that this may be precisely the effect intended. If a hair's breadth separates poetry from prose, the poetry occurs along that hairline. Think of William Carlos Williams' poem
I have eaten the plums
that were in the icebox
and which
you were probably saving
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious so sweet
and so cold
and you realise how much emotion and wonder and cadence even the briefest of 'prosaic' modern poems can contain (and, incidentally, this particular 'modern' poem is over 50 years old). One simply does not expect so high a return per column inch from prose.
It is because we bring such high expectations to poetry that so much of it is a disappointment. We want to be touched by it at some visceral level. We want nothing less than that our lives will be changed by it. It is an idealistic art - any poet worthy of the name will serve the language tirelessly, write without anticipation of reward, try to speak the truth regardless of the consequences. Poetry written in any other spirit is doomed to failure. To which one must add the depressing fact that most of the committed and worthy poets are headed for oblivion also. T.S. Eliot bluntly called poetry 'a mug's game' for this reason, adding that 'No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing'. Yet, in the final analysis, only the poems of 'permanent value' matter - we can never predict how or where they will arise and this in itself is enough to keep us reading, writing, waiting, hoping.
Dennis O'Driscoll
(Based on a lecture delivered at The People's College literary weekend, November 1989)
Page 79, Poetry Ireland Review Issue 28