Last of 2012: Giving up poetry

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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne writer whose work includes poetry, novels, opera libretti and criticism. Her work has won or been shortlisted for many awards. Her most recent book is New and Selected Poems 1991–2017.

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  1. Post the early 1970’s, post Anne Sexton, any and all funding dried up for poets. This in turn placed poetry, as a form, on the lowest rung of literary expression. Poets were and are forced into a literal and figurative poorhouse.

    This is not a bad thing. Poetry is vomit of the unimaginative mind. It embarrasses itself by the very act of memorializing it in writing and twice-fold in the reading of it out loud. Poets are redeemed only through suicide, this one creative outlet, their collective niche. Self-murdered poets sell books, this is a proven fact, a reality. I never met a poet that wasn’t driven relentlessly to the noose, the knife, the gun or any variety of overdose. It’s all about the Pit and the Pendulum, the dying day

  2. Wow. Thanks for your provocative and profound (as always) thoughts Alison.
    I’m sorry and fascinated to hear your thinking, reasoning. Particularly because whenever I’ve been talking this year about accounting and the increasing quantification, commodification, of our entire existence, the one thing I reach for to posit against it is poetry. Which seems so utterly irreducible, its value so unquantifiable.
    And now you’re saying (are you?) -perhaps, pending the workings of your muse – that in these early 21C days, poetry is not worth writing?

  3. Hey Chris, maybe you should widen your reading of poems. As I said, it remains a beautiful artform. And hi Jane, I don’t mean that it’s not worth writing: I hope that people do keep writing poetry, because I certainly find it worth reading. It’s more an inner question. I’ve written lots of poems. For what reason should I write any more? And I don’t have an answer for myself.

  4. sadly poetry is the unloved ugly child of modern art forms. But that does not stop me from loving poetry and writing it most days. The best words in the best order, as my high school English teacher called it, so even if ones poetry is ignored and unloved, left to the gnawing criticism of the mice, it is still a great school for people who wish to write novels plays short stories etc. even when I was a public servant and had to write dreadful dull papers about the whether we should run Websphere on Solaris machine or an AIX (my choice) I was able to sneak in little phrases and words of a ‘poetic’ nature.

    Testing is like the philosophers stone, in that it transmutates fear into boredom. (sadly my project manager edited this out.)

    On a more serious note, a proper study of poetry can only help an author in understanding sentence structure, and the many ways to ‘pervert’ the sentence, while still allowing the sense to shine through.

    War Is Over.

  5. Compared to academic writing (my other occupation), I’ve found that writing/publishing poetry in the digital age leads to all kinds of unexpected and generous responses, friendships &c – including the delight of reading your review of Ladylike, Alison.

  6. Loved this piece Alison. I question, however, whether the telephone booth fights are over as little as you say. Because money has virtually no part in poetry, ego is most often the reason for the knife fights. And those egos are much bigger than even Superman’s or Doctor Who’s telephone booths can hold . . .

  7. Yes, poetry is the high altitude training of literature. But is worth doing its own sake. And thanks, Kate, your book was one of my year’s highlights! And you’re right about the unexpected generosities; there are many people who have immeasurably enriched my life, whom I would never have met otherwise.

    Having just been involved in one of those ego-fights myself, Paul (not in poetry), I can say that colossal though may be the egos involved, the fight itself is about as small stakes as you get.

  8. A well-written, thought-provoking post. I’m not sold on this. The problem is that a lot of poetry IS insular and self indulgent. Therefore, that kind of poetry has come to have few readers. Yet the most read poem on my blog has had over 6000 hits in a year, the least read (or, at least, hit) poem about 100. So I don’t write thinking I won’t have readers, I write with the proviso that I have to be absolutely happy with it in case it goes viral – that it can’t be self indulgent, it HAS to be something more. The way we write, present and consume poetry just has to evolve.

  9. I wouldn’t mock Oppen. I always admired him, as his silence was about a clear ethical choice. He decided he couldn’t write poetry and be an activist at the same time; both required too much commitment. So for 25 years, he put poetry aside.

        • I’d put in a smiley face here if I knew how to do one. It does interest me though, why the fiction seems an avenue forward – if poetry isn’t. Is it just a readership issue? And if so, why writing in the fantasy genre seems to work for you. Or does it? Are similar anxieties involved?

          I don’t really know what I’m asking here. Your mate Maered had doubts yeah?

          • Hi Cam – missed that one, forgive the delayed response. The short answer is, I don’t know. The longer answer: crudely, I started writing for young adults back in 1999, at a grim time – the bombing of Serbia played into this – when I decided that adults were fucked and that perhaps it was only worth talking to young people. So it’s not just a volume of readership – though I certainly reached more readers – but about a kind of readership. I was at the time deeply sick of literary closed-mindedness, of responses calculated on a writer’s perceived reputation, etc etc (the kind of thing Ali mentions here). Now? It seems more complicated; I think in part I’ve just begun (six novels later) to perceive how it might be possible to do something interesting with the form. Which has resulted in a couple of grandiose plans, which may or may not turn into something: who knows? I do know I found this expansion into novelising profoundly liberating. And yes, of course, there is always doubt. Otherwise one might not write anything at all….

      • That’s how I read the comment – as a negative portrayal of those mocking ‘intimates’ – and am making the comment only because it is seen quite often: people who can’t give up chocolate, for example, mocking in disbelief someone unable to give up a harder addiction (methamphetamine say).

        • Oh. That was wholly unintentional, and perhaps just a question of personal experience. I love my intimates very much, and we tease each other all the time. It certainly wasn’t a comment on addiction, but I actually don’t think of writing poetry as an addiction.

          • Thanks, Alison. That’s an interesting response to what was a pretty poorly framed question…

            And yes, Ali’s comments are on the mark. Although how one remains outside such entanglements can be a problem. Small swimming pool – lots of hungry sharks.

  10. Great post, Alison. I find the fights in phone booths the biggest culprit here. As you’ve said, the size of an audience doesn’t necessarily de/legitimise an art form. I realise that in the age of capitalism/mass production, the value of private enjoyment of art by a few elites has been displaced by the value of mass enjoyment of entertainment by many consumers; but I think there’s still space for private enjoyment (see many marginal creative practices, e.g. graffiti, or zine making, or, I dunno, Norwegian Black Metal, etc.) so I can’t see why poetry couldn’t happily and sustainability exist as some kind of literary subculture. The major problem as I see it — and it’s one that’s perhaps related to the marginality of poetry in the contemporary — is the brawls and egos, cliques and careerisms. Nothing demotivates me from writing poetry more than thinking that my poems could get rejected/accepted from a journal due to that journal’s poetry editor perceiving me as ‘with them or against them’ in some absurd Minichaen ‘poetry war’; or that my next book of poetry could get positive/negative reviews purely on the basis of the social/tribal dynamics of the poetry scenes. Are the stakes particularly small? I’m not entirely sure (i think the size of the stakes depends on one’s perspective) but I agree that most of these fights and antagonisms are rather trivial. Anyhow, I very much look forward to reading the epic poem you’re subconsciously writing, in due course …

    • I wholly agree with you, Ali: small isn’t negative. In fact, it’s often a huge positive. I think small and closed is, though; maybe that’s part of the problem I have. Not with poets per se, but sometimes with the culture around poetry.

  11. There are always petty fights and cliques and gatekeepers and silliness around any human activity, so why should poetry be any different? Creating beauty in one area does not translate to people being considerate or forgiving or flexible or capable of change in the rest of their lives.

    You should listen to some musicians! (Talking, that is.) I was eavesdropping yesterday to a conversation between two orchestra players, and the bitching about orchestra politics was so sustained as to be epic. I felt like applauding and asking for an encore when they finally started talking about something else.

    Good luck with your creative endeavours in whatever field.
    I found this post a little hard to understand, as I can’t imagine a day without working on poetry in some way. I don’t really care about being self-indulgent though!

    I like the way your muse is male.

  12. Poets still use phone booths? I do, but don’t count myself one.

    As many people know all too well, giving up any addiction first involves giving up giving up – then comes the void –
    the absolute never again.

  13. If you’re feeling jaded by poetry, or in the case of Chris Roberts out-and-out anti, try the course Modern and Contemporary American Poetry when it’s offered again by Coursera next Spring.. https://www.coursera.org/course/modernpoetry

    It’s almost guaranteed to give your appreciation of the form a massive boost. And it’s free.

  14. I pretty much agree with you Alison. I stopped myself for six years – not exactly a pause of Oppen proportions but disturbing nontheless. Still, during that time I wrote a critical book (Ghost Nation) that my partner suggested was really a closet poem. I’ve mostly been prepared for a small audience (and I can’t imagine writing a novel) but I’m constantly surprised when someone I don’t know responds to a poem and, in the web age, this happens quite often. I wouldn’t try to write for an audience whose desires and wishes I can’t possibly understand, yet often enough there’s something in the poems that attracts other people. For this I’m grateful.

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