At the age of 14 or 15, I won the poetry prize at school, much to my surprise. We’d been asked to write a response to the famine in Sudan (or possibly Ethiopia) and I was completely at a loss.
My father gave me an article to read about it. The journalist had been having a cup of coffee, when he was surrounded by hundreds of starving refugees from the countryside. He didn’t know what to do; he couldn’t share his complimentary roll with all of them. Dad suggested I base it on this and link it to the feeding of the 5,000. This was clearly a good idea, although I was too ignorant to pick up on all the cultural associations such a tale might have.
I still had no idea how to go about it. In the end, I just baldly stated the story, ending with the narrator questioning himself: “how can I share one roll amongst so many?” Something like that. I wanted to cap it off with some sort of pithy epigram, but Dad suggested I left it there, the unanswerable question hanging in the air, with all the biblical resonances echoing into the silence.
They loved it. A couple of teachers even came up and congratulated me. This was Ireland in the 1980s and I went to a religious school, so they were overly respectful of poets and at least partially bible-literate.
Then, to my even greater astonishment, I won an all-Ireland under 18s poetry competition! It didn’t feel quite real or right. I couldn’t see why I deserved it. My work wasn’t that good. Sure, I wrote quite a lot, and these, at least, were entirely my own creations, but I didn’t apply myself with much diligence. I was revising my work more, but all I did was substitute one word for another. I kept a blind grip on form and diction and images I liked, even if they no longer worked; I didn’t explore. I didn’t experiment or try to take a different perspective or say something original. I just expressed myself in the same way I always did. It was all too easy.
I was puzzled, but I thought, “I’m not sure how I’m doing it, but I appear to be able to write poetry, so that’s my future sorted out: I’m going to be a poet. Now I can get on with thinking about girls.” I was never more ambitious than that. While my friends agonised over choices and futures and celebrated youth’s endless possibilities, I wandered around with a pacific smile and a vacant brain, occasionally dashing off a quick piece of doggerel about love, crucially, fatally, assuming I’d acquire the skills just by living; that I didn’t need to do an apprenticeship in the art. In other words, I was bloody lazy.
For years, I occupied myself with falling in love, being rejected and being an unrequited lover, but beneath all this, my identity was that of a poet. I was a poet falling in love, a poet being rejected, an unrequited poet-lover. I rattled off a lot of tedious, unreadable free verse about my feelings, entered a few poetry competitions, sent a few poems off to magazines, And, of course, nothing came of it. It’s much easier to show promise as a teenager than to actually deliver as an adult, especially if you’re a shallow, immature and self-absorbed adult.
After a few years, it dawned on me that I ought to take the craft a little more seriously, rather than relying entirely on sincerity and direct address as my only poetic gifts. I needed to work at it. Work – that’s the thing. The difference between a concert pianist and an amateur is 10,000 hours of practice, as the wise saying goes.
And now there was an urgency to it. I’d squandered my early years when my mind was pliant and adaptable and could grow its own poetic abilities. My time was limited.
I needed to get on with it.