Since I’ve been doing lots of small and diverse jobs recently, and not much relating to poetry (except a couple of reviews of new collections) I thought it might be nice to return to one of my favourite subjects. This time I want to look at writing rituals and how my writing (I think) has changed since moving to Belgium from Scotland about a year and a half ago.
First of all, I don’t see any problem in trying to analyse the ways in which people write poetry – the general reluctance to look at how writing occurs seems to me to pander to the old ideas of inspiration, and blankets the whole act in mystery. I hope we are beyond faith in muses and lightning bolts of ‘divine afflatus’. That said, I do subscribe to the idea of the ‘donnée’ – that increasingly rare thing (for me at least). It means that first thought you get to write a poem, which often happens in an inconvenient and deeply un-poetic place – you are doing the shopping when a line comes into your head, or the rough kernel of a poem. If you don’t have pen and paper, you’ll lose the line, unless you are like Auden who was said to pride himself on holding ideas for poems in his head, as if ageing bottles of wine in a cellar.
It is tempting to say there’s something numinous about the ‘donnée’ but I very much doubt it – I think it’s more likely to be something suddenly dredged up from your deep subconscious, when your brain made a connection so fast you didn’t notice it. If anything, it’s primal rather than celestial. But I’m not a neuroscientist, so I’ve no idea, really.
I mention this because I think this is one of the fundamental ways in which my approach to writing poetry has changed. I do still, on extremely rare occasions get a ‘donnée’ flash into my head, but if I waited for that to happen I’d be writing about 2 or 3 poems a year. Once upon a time nearly all my poems were of the ‘donnée’ school and the thought of actually sitting down to go hunting for a poem would have struck me as very odd. But that’s what I do now, I sit down and wait for the ideas to come.
Now, you might say this is simply my poetic or image storehouse running dry – that I’ve ‘lost it’, but it’s definitely not as reductive and simple as that. I spent a day recently going through old ‘donnée’ -poems and I was horrified at how messy and shoddy they were – the language splurged all over the place, and the images I used were often stillborn or maimed. What happened back then was that reams and reams would be written and I thought it was all ok, when in fact I was writing at a speed of one decent, publishable poem to ten duds. There are also environmental factors to take into account – as a young man alcohol played a rather conspicuous role in my life which it no longer does. This would have really disrupted my thought patterns, and good ideas will have come out alongside all the mental detritus. I am not saying that drink aids the writer, but many of my early poems were written under the influence and often I thought everything I wrote was touched with something special, when in fact I was just a bit pished.
Back then I was much surer of myself. I was also drunk on words, the more arcane the better, which I studded my poems with. I used to see poetry as something decadent and incantatory – getting high and casting spells – but now, in a sober light, I see good poetry as simply good communication and the more people who can understand you, the better. And this has a lot to do with living in a country where there are at least three, if not more, languages being spoken widely all the time. My smart-arsed, polysyllabic undergraduate English won’t cut it here, to be understood, you need to speak as lucidly as you can. This has filtered into my poems where I now use a much less ambitious vocabulary – I am far more interested in using language as accurately as I can. Norman MacCaig spoke about his ‘long haul to lucidity’ to become the lyrical poet we all know and love.
I was more confident back then, but I feel more determined now (if such a contradiction is possible). Back then I sometimes didn’t even know what I was saying, but now I have a good idea of what I want to say before I write the poem, and if it doesn’t do that, the poem’s language is at fault and must be corrected, it’s very rarely the failing of the reader. I’ve gone from a dabbler to a devotee – from Dionysus to Apollo.
So what’s different? Well, as I said I sit down and wait for ideas to come and when (if!) they do I don’t start railroading them into a poem, I merely write a little prose description of the thought into a notebook, and it might be a good few weeks before I go through a few accumulated pages of this book to see what’s a non-starter and what has potential. This way I can sometimes detect distinct thought patterns from these little, seemingly disjointed snippets, and a number of poems have been written this way. Is this a cut-up method? Is it like Browning keeping the best lines of failed poems in a drawer for use later? I’m not sure, but I have started to cannibalise old duds for the odd image or line. Waste not…
By changing the way I write poems, moving away from abstruse but sometimes scintillating words, to a much simpler, humbler form of expression, I have realised that I am no stylist. The presentation, aesthetics, style (and dare I even say music!) of the poem matters little to me, my major concern is what the poem says and whether or not it says it well and memorably (which can of course be helped by style and music…). Hey, don’t get me wrong, I love reading super-stylised poetry, such as the poets of the 1890s, but I don’t want to write like that myself, though it must have been a wonderful feeling (or maybe not!) to write ‘Non sum quails eram bonae sub regno Cynarae’ – as recited here by Richard Burton. My approach risks occasional flatness in tone and it is a very unforgiving way of writing – if you write in a heady bardic way like Dylan Thomas, where sound and image are king, you can get away with quite a lot, but if you write simply and focus on the meaning or message of the poem, you put the slightest foot wrong and everyone can see it, as clear as day.
This blog has gone on long enough, but there’s one other thing I meant to say about writing in a culture where the primary language is not your own. I’m busy learning Dutch (it’s never ending – the stuff simply does not stick in my head!) and with this comes a sudden doubleness of vision, or a dual awareness. You suddenly have two homes and that creates some funny feelings, you go back to your ‘true’ home and you feel like a tourist / visitor and you come back to your other, second home and you’re a foreigner and people think you’re a tourist. In fact, I was in Scotland just recently and a poet friend who I often by chance bump into described me as a ghost who just materialises now and then. Instead of having one foot in both places at once, you end up rather rootless and adrift – indeed, it’s like you are haunting these places.
Language is annoying but it is also a treasure trove of discoveries – you start to pick away at it. Take, for instance, the Dutch word for ‘homeless’: dakloos. That literally means ‘without a roof’ but to be without a home and without a roof are two radically different things in my mind. The Dutch word suggests that a homeless person’s problems can simply be solved with the addition of a roof to cover them (i.e. a hostel) and thinking more cynically (and more of our increasingly right-wing times!) it suggests that the homeless cannot have, or do not deserve, a home like those inhabited by good, working citizens. Now, the word might not have these connotations at all, but when you come at it like me, like someone wanting to pull things apart, this is a good starting point for poetry and a number of my poems have worked on the differences between words for the same things in two languages – English and Dutch. My example is unfair on Dutch, as there are so many words in this language that are way better than in English – off the top of my head, how about ‘tijdverspilling’? This means ‘to waste time’ but I much prefer the idea of time being a precious liquor that you can spill.
Speaking of wasting time, this is the longest blog I’ve written!