We asked three poets—each at different stages in their writing lives—to tell us about the anxieties they face in their work…
Though it happened over twenty years before I was born, there’s an event I often run over, reimagine and reconfigure in my mind’s eye: February 9th 1962, the Staten Island Ferry, and a one-hundred word notice in The New York Post regarding the wellbeing of the actress Lana Turner after her birthday celebrations of the day previous (she had just turned 42). The headline ‘Lana Faints; In Hospital‘ pretty much sums up all you need to know about Lana Turner’s travails that day, and the tagline accompanying her picture (‘Tired out…‘) says more about the jaded Hollywood Studios’ output of the late fifties and early sixties than it does about Lana herself (and the charismatic hold that Hollywood’s ‘star system’ held over the American public’s collective imagination). But the brevity of the piece tells another story entirely: one of a woman with a million stories to tell, both on the silver screen and off. Collapsing of ‘nervous exhaustion‘ at her birthday party should serve as a minor footnote in the life of the actress whose performance in The Postman Always Rings Twice helped consolidate the film’s place among the classics of Film Noir, and of the woman who’s widely speculated to have murdered the mobster Johnny Stompanato in her kitchen, with a breadknife. If truly great poetry is that which cannot be paraphrased, and communicates something on a visceral level before it can ever be fully understood, then Julia Jean ‘Lana’ Turner’s life flies pretty close to a condition not unlike that.
Anyway, back to the point: while Ms Turner was recovering in a Los Angeles hospital, it was, by several accounts, freezing cold in New York City that same evening as Frank O’Hara travelled on the Staten Island Ferry. The guy had two viable avenues to distraction from the gusts of wind that were cutting across the upper bay of the Hudson River: drink alcohol or write poetry. He chose both. Whether he brought a copy of The New York Post along with him, or if (as I like to imagine) it caught his eye on the ferry, flapping in the wind, is pretty much irrelevant—all we have are the facts: Frank O’Hara wrote ‘Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]’ in a matter of minutes, while on his way to a reading at Wagner College on Staten Island. O’Hara was reading with Robert Lowell that evening, and the two men famously disliked one another (and each other’s work). The encounter was poised for fireworks. O’Hara took to the podium and announced that he wrote the poem he was about to read ‘[Lana Turner!]‘ while travelling to the venue. When it came to Lowell’s turn to read, he curtly informed the audience that he didn’t write any of his poems while en route to the venue, the implication being that he was in fact a master craftsman, unlike the jittery deviant who had just preceded him.
The entire encounter comes down to two modes of production, and two conflicting ideologies of process in direct confrontation in the same room, at the same time; it is tempting to pick a side, right? The hipster O’Hara and the dinosaur Lowell, or the flippant O’Hara, and the meticulous Lowell: a choice depending on perspective, or persuasion. But one detail stands out: while O’Hara was one to dash out his poems in minutes, he read that evening for over an hour (according to O’Hara’s biographer, Brad Gooch, many of O’Hara’s friends and allies in the audience were visibly irritated by his longwinded and abrasive manner) and Lowell, who took years to draft his poems, read for less than twenty minutes.
They are, unquestionably, two hugely influential and charismatic figures, but I’m also guessing that they were both, in their own peculiar, idiosyncratic—and in Lowell’s case, overtly problematic—ways, monumental assholes. I probably wouldn’t enjoy a pint with either of them.
My own ‘process’ is at a remove from the two archetypal models of poetic production exemplified by their encounter that February over fifty years ago. But that evening still seduces me. I have no idea why. I can only aspire toward Frank O’Hara’s off-the-cuff frivolity, or Lowell’s glacial commitment to executing something like a prosody that only ever chimes. But so seldom do I sit down to produce work, it feels false to state something like: I am a writer, or to say ‘my own process‘, let alone feel entitled to something as simultaneously vital and ephemeral as the imperative to make art. And please forgive me, dear reader, because this is the point in the essay where I inform you that the word ‘poetry‘ comes from the ancient Greek verb ‘poïesis‘ which means ‘to make’, even though I don’t have a word of ancient Greek in me. Again, sorry. There’s this beautiful metaphor in one of Anne Carson’s books (at the start of Autobiography of Red, maybe?) where she speaks of space being formed of nouns, and how verbs activate the space around us, which, aside from being an absolutely stunning idea to unpack, reminds us that ‘poetry’ is a noun rendered from a verb, and what the truly great poets do is reverse that process to make the unmoveable again somehow move: to remake the solid into something fluid. It’s something like what Bruce Lee said about being water. Like what Mos Def means when he raps ‘to navigate the treacherous / and make it seem effortless‘. O’Hara has it, so does Lowell, Anne Carson has it in spades, Medhbh McGuckian, Sam Riviere, Trevor Joyce, Karen Solie… the list can go on, add to it whom you will.
I guess I’m terrified of what it means to make. That first book thing. I guess if a movie star can be plucked from some kind of obscurity behind a West Hollywood drugstore cash register, and get away with murder at a point along the way, who can’t? But isn’t that sort of like the big problem? Who wants to contribute to that?
When it comes to language, all writers want to be billionaires.
They say it’s not healthy to spend your life judging yourself as if you were a member of the audience, watching yourself on stage. Yet as a writer I feel that such an existence is unavoidable. When I am not working on a poem and have no real ideas for starting a poem, I watch myself like a drunken heckler, sneering accusations at every move: every lost line; every wasted opportunity. Fraud! Fake! Pretender! I throw popcorn; old poems; other people’s poems, at my feet. Eventually, if I am lucky, I find a way to make this kind of insanity work in my favour: poems as dramatic monologues; dramatic dialogues; confessions; defense statements.
Even though everybody knows the only solution to writer’s block is to write something, it can be a ‘long torment’, as Kafka puts it.
Doubt. Failure. Isolation. Arguably, it is necessary for any writer to foster these qualities, but to know this is a Catch 22.
Writing before your work has been published brings its own levels of anxiety. Once you start sending work out, writing in the wake of getting rejections from editors brings another. Writing after publication, especially after the publication of your first book, brings a third.
This third anxiety is the most difficult to explain because it is unstraightforward. Ted Hughes described it as ‘a horrible feeling of guilt at what I had committed’. Gustave Flaubert spoke of longing to ‘return, and forever, to the solitude and silence I emerged from’. It is a kind of shock; the shock of finding your imagined self coming into close and sudden contact with your real self. It’s a naïve sort of surprise, really, as if you thought your imagination could remain private and separate, while at the same time seeking to make it public; while at the same time hoping beyond hope that it could somehow become part of your everyday existence.
First books are written in a kind of innocence; what Emily Dickinson called the ‘Barefoot Rank’ (‘my Barefoot Rank is better’). The question following on from that is: how to proceed now, from the published, patently shod , rank? But also, how to remain true to that innocence? How to take off your shoes again?
In a poem by Lao Tzu, written many centuries ago, are the words: ‘instrument and voice achieve one harmony‘. I interpret this as a way of living with integrity; and as an aim in poetry, where ‘instrument’ is the created world around me, and ‘voice’ is the Weltanschauung, my own particular apprehension of what this world is all about. A further phrase of Lao Tzu reads: ‘listening and not hearing it, I will call it inaudible‘. And this I interpret as a failure to be present to our living, a failure of awareness of what the world presents in our lives and thoughts, and if I fail such presence, I seek excuses for my failure. The words I constantly keep before my mind are ‘permeable’ and ‘impermeable’. My greatest fear in living and in working towards poetry, is that I impose my will and thoughts on the world around me, rather than allowing the reality and the mystery of the world come through to me. As I was born within a strict and negative Roman Catholic tradition, the danger remains in a tendency to impose what has been handed on to me on what I am living with.
Too often, after voluminous notes, the gathering of words, phrases, images, the fire of inspiration does not catch. It is then that I fear that I am trying to net the mysteries, and the mysteries will not be netted; I am trying to name the name that bears no name. I am imposing; I am not listening. It is like in prayer: the tendency for a believer to chatter away to God, pleading, begging, praising… and rarely listening. It is in the emptying of self that the mysteries will approach and in this way I see the good poet as a kind of mystic even, a prophet. In my own case, it is this high esteem in which I hold poetry that continues to astonish me, and to frustrate me; too often, still, after so many years, the rhythms, the movement, the music, remain turgid or flaccid. It is the effort, then, to allow the mystery through that I find most difficult. There are many metaphors for this: the bird that cannot fly because a tiny thread holds it back; the boat that is not allowed to sail because it is anchored to the shore… The one thing that is certain, and that is most difficult, is that a poem will not be forced into existence. So, after much labour, after several re-visionings of the work, the experience, the thought, the language, after much re-drafting, it is painful yet honest to dump the thing, if it does not cohere. A poem catches fire by a deserved, a worked-for, moment of intuition, when that moment comes with the words that earth the insight. That miracle.
The outcome of every effort at a poem is, therefore, still doubtful. The work for me always takes root in one of two things: either a small (sometimes great) excitement over the encounter with a moving or beautiful part of the earth about me, or an insight—garnered from reading or simply listening to my own thinking—into what I am searching for, the meaning of our living. It will take not an either/or to make a poem, it will take a both/and, at least two shoots to develop, and a greater poem if there are more than that, more branches and leaves that make the one eucalyptus tree. It is not that the physical world about me is merely described, though this I do constantly, trying to figure why an event or a thing seen will excite, and this I try to catch always through the surging of the language that might echo the original emotion. Nor is it that I will add a seam of thinking to that physical image. The process is a complex one and will develop, or not, over a period of days, or weeks, or longer. The fear is that the unitive in-breathing inspiration will not occur, that a mere single flame will fizzle up and out, without the conflagration of a good poem. And this often happens. Pages of what I might once have considered competent writing will be scrapped because there are no levels or depths, nor any music, to what I have been working on.
When this happens, there is often a kind of empty feeling that there is nothing more to give, nothing more to be found in the old well. I know that, even if I have succeeded in writing a handful of pieces that I would fairly confidently call ‘poems’, I still have not come near to writing the poem that I believe is really in there somewhere, the poem that says it all, that sings it all, that clarifies and deepens all to its full reason and its complete being.
–John F. Deane