I have given up poetry, at last count, about three times. The first time, I bored all my intimates witless with earnest conversations about how I would never write another poem; that there just wasn’t any poetry left inside me, that it was just part of an internal evolution, that I was simply in another turn of the creative spiral, and all the other kinds of bilge that occur when you’re trying to describe the indescribable processes of the creative mind. After a month of this, exhausted, I sat down and wrote a long poem cycle in 15 parts, which I eventually called Amplitudes. It all poured out in about three days.
Naturally, this led to much mockery from my aforementioned intimates. I have never quite lived that down. The next time the poetry went quiet, I was much more circumspect. I was equally sincere in my belief that my poetic life was over; but this time I forbore to tell everyone about it. This was fortunate, because, of course, poems started escaping again.
I should say that these poetic silences have never caused me regret or sadness: the predominant feeling has always been relief, as if some terrible internal pressure had lifted. I sometimes wondered if I kept writing poetry because I was hoping to write the poem that meant I didn’t have to write any more.
This time, it’s been a little different. I have been all but poetically silent for around five years; I’ve written almost no poems as such, although the odd poem has smuggled itself into other work. Reviewing poetry for Overland this year has reminded me that I love the form as much as I ever did; but, except as a reader, I can no longer imagine what I have to do with it. As with the other times I’ve gone poetically silent, it feels like some kind of on-going aesthetic crisis, but this time it doesn’t seem to be resolving.
I mentioned this in a chance conversation with two other poets recently, who to my surprise both said the same thing: that although poetry had always been the centre of their creative lives, now they wanted to do other things. So similar were our thoughts that I wondered if what I had taken as a purely personal crisis might be a little more than that.
Because I know the problem isn’t with poetry itself. Poetry, at once the freest and most rigorous of literary forms, remains the beautiful challenge that it always was. The problem exists in the culture around poetry. For a century it’s been a marginalised artform: the time, intelligence, emotional rigor and devotion required to write it well has almost never been reflected in wide recognition or material reward. That’s taken as read, the ground of poetic making, and in truth the uncommodifiable nature of poetry has often been its strength. This marginality, unfortunately, also leads to the ‘knife fight in a phone box’ that so often characterises disagreements in the poetry world: the brawls are so vicious because so little is at stake.
Again, it was ever thus; and people write beautiful poetry all the same, even now. But it seems to me that this long-term disempowerment has corroded the culture’s sense of itself. A poet writes knowing that almost no one will read the poems. If one writes from internal necessity, the poetry will occur anyway, as it did for me for so many years; but there’s often a melancholy defensiveness, a self-protective lowering of horizons, in the wider culture. Reading endless essays about how nobody reads poetry any more will do that, I guess. But the contemporary state of crisis, the sense of social and environmental peril that attends living in these early years of the twenty-first century, means that, for me at least, this futility begins to write itself large. In the face of these urgencies, writing anything can feel like the worst kind of self-indulgence; writing poetry for an audience you can count on your digits can feel like the worst of all.
It’s not a feeling of failure that drives these thoughts. I’ve had an audience as a poet, as much as most contemporary poets can expect. But it doesn’t compare with the hundreds of thousands of readers I’ve reached with my novels. I have always defended the right of artists to make work for small audiences. I still deeply believe it’s important that they must. But speaking solely for myself, it’s very hard to see the point. The future seems to be narrowing, and I want to speak to people now, not in some unimaginable posterity. And maybe that’s why the muse has been putting his energy into other forms.
Or maybe not. I’ve learned the hard way not to second-guess myself, and maybe some kind of epic is stirring in the recesses of my imagination even now. But, you know, five years is a long time.