I wondered, cloudly as a lone…

I started reading more modern poetry; I subscribed to Poetry Review. I went on poetry courses. I even (briefly) joined a poetry writing group[1]. None of it made any difference.

I started to suspect I was mildly dyslexic. Most modern verse repelled me. I couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Reading Poetry Review was torment. I found the poems ghastly – dry, joyless scraps of clever, indecipherable language experimentation. What made it worse was I felt I needed to treat it like work; I felt compelled to drive myself through the turgid crap, almost weeping with the misery of it, and then rack my brains for some lesson I might learn from it, something I might emulate, because this was obviously what was wanted.

So I worked at it: I struggled doggedly on for years and years, until my output dwindled to nothing, and each time I forced myself to sit down and read or write poetry, it would trigger a bleak, nasty bout of despair. I revised and revised the poems I did manage to produce until I’d pared them down to almost nothing and they’d completely lost the spontaneity and honesty that had been their only qualities. By this point, even the thought of reading or writing poetry filled me with horror. My tendency to procrastinate reached new heights. I’d do anything, anything to postpone confronting the awful anguish of it.

When the dust settled, there I stood, alone and naked, with nothing to show for it. All I had was the sense that I’d fucked it all up for myself, and that it was entirely my own fault. And the vague but urgent and persistent feeling that I needed to get on. That I needed to occupy myself, that I needed to resist my own indolence, because I’d produced nothing[2] [3] . That I needed to work.

I wasn’t a writer.

But if I wasn’t a writer, what the hell was I? Who?

Footnotes

[1] In one workshop I read the following poem about my daughter, based on Adrien Mitchell’s Beatty is Three:

Meggie is Nearly Three

You took the bannister and then my hand

and I was so intent on watching you,

I was the one who fell.

It didn’t hurt, but I’m an opportunist

and I took my chance.

At my request, you held my head

against the quick beat of your small

and careless heart.

One of the other members accused me, obliquely, of being a paedophile, just on the strength of this piece. I’d never met her before. It was difficult to muster much enthusiasm for the gatherings, after that.

[2] “[Because he feels incomplete,] the artist feels he is nothing, or worse than nothing, a kind of criminal, unless he is practising – and successfully practising his particular art.” J.B. Priestley (Let the People Sing, 1939) Sorry about the gendered pronouns, guys: it was a sexist age.

[3] “I’m not fit to live with unless I can do some work – even an hour a day keeps me civilised” (Barbara Hepworth, quoted in The Observer, 19/04/20)

 

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