Dublin Writers Festival: On Writing

As a poet, in a way, I have very little to say on the subject of ‘writing’ – because I don’t really think of poems as things I write so much as, if I think about it at all, things I think of. While I cannot quite bring myself to talk about ‘composing’ poems, the word suggests the form’s affinity with the creation of music, and the importance, to poetry, of music and sound over written content. And Seamus Heaney, of course, has invoked Robert Frost’s observation that a poem begins with ‘a lump in the throat, a homesickness, a lovesickness.  It finds the thought and the thought finds the words’, to emphasis the importance of the non-verbal to poetry: how a whole poem can come suddenly into focus before (even if is only a few seconds before) a single word of it has been written at all.  So poetry, it would seem, is different from other kinds of writing.  Even though it is now widely taught as part of creative writing courses at university, we still expect poetry to retain this difference – to come at things awry, to be slightly mysterious or perhaps not immediately intelligible at all. It will communicate its meanings differently from prose, from novels, and certainly from journalism and other kinds of print media.  And this is why poetry is unlikely to be the dominant form at a Writers Festival – because, if it is writing, it is not for everyone. At its worst, this expectation sometimes lets poetry away with a lot.  But it’s also what gives poetry its special freedom; its power to move and surprise and to speak to people more deeply, or at least more memorably.

A few years ago, though, I began dimly to wonder if it were possible to write a poem that pretended or acted as though it were like other, more communicable forms of writing.  The subject I had in mind began, (because I was 32 or 33), with personal experience. I was clearing out boxes of personal effects (by which I mean rubbish) from boxes I had carried in the years since leaving home, through, probably, ten or eleven different flats and rented houses, in three cities, throughout different housesholds, friendships and relationships. Struck by the random and dated nature of much of what I have accumulated, I made a list which read something like:

  • Reubles,
  • train tickets,
  • photo on New York with the twin towers in the background;
  • old bank statements (why?)
  • compilation tapes
  • polaroid photos
  • scribbled notes before text messages etc
  • Address books of for temporary houses – with very short phone numbers (no mobile phones).
  • There are no email addresses.

Then I seem briefly to have noted the potential rhyme ‘email address’/ ‘distress’).  The first stanza of the poem I wrote, based on this stuff, was then:

All week it has been freezing in the flat
where – after how many moves? – I’ve had to sift
through boxes of old junk I’ve kept, so that
it seemed preserved, this stuff, as in a drift
of snow: old notes and diaries under ice,
photos from photo-booths –  my anxious faces
glossed in i.d.s from universities
(strange when you hate a place to try it twice
let alone three times), all those hairstyles, phases,
freeze-frames of myriad intensities.

On one level, the sheer amount of material I noted in my list of junk (for the list went on) meant that I knew that I too wanted to go on, and write more.  But on a more important one, the concrete and matter-of-fact nature of what I wanted to detail leant itself to a matter-of-fact directness. And this in turn leant itself to a different sense of who I wanted to talk to in this poem and what I wanted to, or would be able, to say. By this I mean that it seemed unlikely that I was the only one who possessed boxes containing old unlabeled floppy disks or French Francs, or that I was alone in feeling a bit bewildered by the sudden changes that seemed to have taken place in the previous ten years:  the revolution in digital communications, the rise of Facebook, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the escalation of consumerism and the social changes in Belfast. It was or early , and in a couple of years newspaper columns, essays and televisions programs would be given over to considering these changes, effected since the new millennium. With a vague sense of its technical do-ability I thought it would be exciting and enjoyable to write a poem in the same journalistic vein.

Reframing the long poem I had in mind as ‘Letter to Friends’ (it had been called ‘Profit and Loss’ – for some months before the banking crisis), was a step, then, towards confirming, even before it was written, the communicable function I wanted the poem to have. The ‘friends’ in question were not of the Facebook variety (Facebook, indeed, was in its infancy), but a hybrid of real and imagined ordinary people: people who liked poetry well enough (though they were sometimes suspicious of it), also read the newspaper, liked films and music perhaps, and probably spent too much time on the internet. In half-imagining this idealized/common reader, and this poem half like an essay (or a polemic), I don’t mean that I wanted just to ramble on confidentially about life-as-I-knew-it.  Instead, it felt like a confidence trick, played on myself as much as anyone else, to come on as though a poem, with its strict rhyme-scheme and strain after metrical regularity, might be the medium everyone used to communicate their thoughts on politics and society.  At the back of my mind was maybe the idea of some dim, pre-lapsarian age when poetry did attract a mass audience, when it was the form of writing (I’m never sure when this is supposed to be.  Perhaps the time of Byron’s Don Juan itself? Or was it Pope? Or Shakespeare?).  More immediate though, was of course the example of Louis MacNeice in the 1930s.  MacNeice thought that poetry should be ‘honest before it is anything else’, and should communicate as part of its democratic function. His Autumn Journal is a masterpiece of poetry written to the historical moment – but it was as much out of a sense of perversity as anything else, that I turned, instead, to MacNeice’s contemporary (and for a long time a poet considered his superior), W H Auden. Auden’s ‘Letter to Lord Byron’, from Letters from Iceland in 1937, is characterized by the poet as ‘light verse’ but also speaks directly to his contemporaries and his turbulent, increasingly materialist and eventually war-torn age:

Again, our age is highly educated;

There is no lie our children cannot read,
And as MacDonald might so well have stated
We’re growing up and up and up indeed.
Advertisements can teach us all we need;

He writes. Or

Byron, thou should’st be living at this hour!
What would you do, I wonder, if you were?
Britannia’s lost prestige and cash and power,
Her middle classes show some wear and tear,
We’ve learned to bomb each other from the air;
I can’t imagine what the Duke of Wellington
Would say about the Music of Duke Ellington.

This is an ‘airy manner’ which I tried, frankly, to steal (along with several lines which I did, literally, steal) for parts of the middle section of ‘Letter to Friends’, adapting the seven line structure to the differently rhymed ten-line one I’d put in place (and which it was, unfortunately, too late to change).  So writing about our obsession with information technology, I came up with:

Indeed our ways to waste time are so many
they’d make a longer book than Ulysses
(whatever that is) the cacophony
of texts and tweets and emails – although these
are hardly done exclusively for pleasure
but operate like bat-squeaks in a cave
to steer us in the dark, it seems to me
– and what does a flying bat know about leisure
squeaking, per-force, from bat-birth to bat-grave?
Man can’t bear too much reality (TV)

but this is our life, half virtual, half-flesh:
the instant message and the feedback loop;
the tailored advertisement made afresh
with each mouse-click – the generally crap
factoids and new-lite that we read online
the grace of touchscreen, and the thrill unchecked
of translatlantic – transworld conversation;
status updates (Leontia’s feeling fine …)
squeaking across the void – ‘only connect!’ –
leontia is loving all this information.

Or writing about Northern Ireland – which, post ceasefire was beginning to enjoy a small amount of the affluence seen in the Republic, and which (at the time of writing) had a large new shopping centre but not yet a contemporary art gallery:

What else is new then? Belfast, long the blight
and blot on lives has now brought to an end
or several ends, it’s grim traumatic fight
-the pay-off packet and the dividend
amid the double-dealings, halts and heists:
a building boom and shopping- malls thrown up
like flotsam by our new security:
Here are our palaces of snow and ice.
– and so folks in our esprit de corps we’ll shop
ourselves to civilised maturity’.

Belfast aspires to be, then, every place
where shopping is done less for recreation
(this might apply to all the western race)
than from a kind of civic obligation.

The upshot: ‘on the whole we’re better dressed’
as Auden wrote …

Autumn Journal is spread across 24 longish sections and ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ weighs in at over 150 stanzas in Rhyme Royal form. The ‘long’ poem I finished, which is in my book Profit and Loss, published last Autumn, is just 32 stanza and 320 lines – and I don’t, of course, pretend it has scope of MacNeice’s poem, with its philosophical turns, or the fluent, virtuoso wit of Auden’s often excoriating attack on contemporary culture.  Instead, after a bit of a rant and a stanza on the banking crisis of 2008, it largely returns to the private considerations (and less impersonal manner) with which it began.  What writing it (or thinking of it) did do for me, though, was form a bridge between the part of me that will probably always try to write poetry, and the ordinary civilian me, interested in other things and suspicious of poetry’s assumption of a ready-made audience.  I don’t mean, I hope, casually signaling to the reader I’m ‘one of the guys’ with a few pop-cultural references, but creating, within formal confines, the impression – the fiction of having a conversation about stuff in a way which does not seem immediately poetic. Indeed ‘conversation’ or ‘dialogue’ is perhaps more accurate a term than ‘letter’ to suggest what, increasingly, I would like poetry – or my poetry – to do.  Of course there is a place for the nebulous and the numinous in poetry: as a lover of Medbh McGuckian and Wallace Stevens I could hardly think otherwise.  But it is also a challenge to listen for the rhymes and repetitions, and work the poem back from there towards sounding like the ordinary language that we all use and all share. To work, in other words, for its effects, one of which is the effect of sounding like sense; for poetry to engage, to entertain (and certainly to entertain myself); not take to its readership for granted.  To be, in fact, yes, a little bit like other writing.