How Poets Work
for Five Bells, Poets Union Magazine, 2005
I shouldn’t be writing this. I should be making a poem. In fact, I’d rather be making a poem. I haven’t completed a poem for a couple of months.
At the moment, when it comes to the question of ‘How Poets Work’ I can only respond in a humdrum way with a series of mundane facts about how busy I am with tasks like editing, teaching, essay writing, committee work (yikes – I used to be an anarchist) and the extensive reading that all of the above require. Then there’s the day job, social life, the movies, theatre, art shows, domestic life, a relationship and so on - plus some time to exercise and maybe time to sleep - everything other than poetry writing . Most of my contemporaries would probably answer similarly.
I have a collection of lines, notes for poems, quotations from books and magazines and a few newspaper clippings in an A4 exercise book. This is where my poems begin. So, I can offer this glimpse of my process and a statement of poetics.
A benign compulsion nudges my writing practice. The process is to track lines of thought, to collect and record glimpses, to use snatches of language and try to place them at a slant to a linear norm. I write poetry in the shadows of the twentieth-century post-Modernist idea that after the A-bomb, linearity is anachronistic. Generally though, my continuing aim is intelligibility.
The eruption of innovation in poetry (and every other art-form) in the 1960s, in tandem with a new wave of global politicisation, influenced my generation irrevocably.
For poetry to exist in corporatised western societies, whose undeniable context is power, it has to be sceptical of the status quo, questioning, probably experimental, or at least apply an unanticipated use of language and form — that is, be interesting to be poetic.
Poetry might bring me into nuanced engagement (with a reader). It’s a risky means of making an encounter accompanied as it is by all the doubtful artifice, murmurings and disruptive stuttering of that desire.
My topic is local. The poems rarely leave whatever street I’m on. They are as mobile and as mutable as my daily life.
My attitude, anti-Wordsworthian in a way, can be summed up by a stanza from Joachim du Bellay’s sixteenth-century ballad The Regrets —
Now I forgive the delicious lunacy
Which made me use up all my best years
Without my work bringing any advantage other
Than the pleasure of a long delinquency.