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Tuned In, Torn Apart, Tub-thumped, Healed

How writing poetry changes the writer

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

Writing a poem is not unlike wrestling with your dreams in the presence of some unseen psychoanalyst. It has something in common too with what Jung called ‘individuation’, his ‘self-realization of the unconscious’. There is always the sense that you are discovering your own shape as well as that of the poem you are writing. But does writing actually change you?

In small ways, certainly. It can make you hypersensitive to tone and pause and ambiguity, and consequently more hesitant in committing to the spoken word. (Poets tend to be lousy dinner party guests). It is also likely to breed in you a suspicion of dogma and jargon. Listening to a politician or reading the news, you will probably react as much to the clichés and lazy metaphors as to the content. Like Seamus Heaney, you will have reconciled yourself to being different. In his case, famously, it was the awareness that he couldn’t go out and dig turf as his father and grandfather had. Yet he knew he had to dig.

In fact, it was reading Heaney’s essay on ‘Englands of the Mind’ that first made me respond differently to the county in which I found myself living in the 1980s. We had just come from two years in Upper Egypt, a period I usually credit with having helped me find a ‘voice’. But it was an experience so overwhelming that any change in me caused by the mere writing of those early poems was undetectable. In the flatlands of Eastern England it was a different matter. I had to learn to look at things that weren’t shouting for me to describe them. I tried out a new long line, a prosy conversational style: and there began my Huntingdonshire trilogy. There also began my acceptance of what would be a long creative life in this undistinguished, yet compelling (and officially non-existent) shire.

The act of writing poetry, then, can breed an alertness to the ordinary things. But it can also make you take note of the extraordinary, life’s oddities, curiosities and coincidences. Ted Hughes finding a buried model fox or George Mackay Brown’s funeral falling on the Feast of his beloved St Magnus — these take on a significance. So do personal synchronicities. Recently, the poet Annie Fisher told me how she had gone (on the centenary of his passing near her home while writing In Pursuit of Spring) to find the spot where Edward Thomas had heard chiffchaffs. On her return, she was informed by her husband that a chiffchaff had flown into the house and perched on her computer. She wrote about it (as did I). For Gillian Clarke, it was a ‘Miracle on St David’s Day’, a poem which tells how she was ‘reading poetry to the insane’, when a man who has never spoken to the hospital staff is ‘suddenly standing, silently, / huge and mild’ as

                            Like slow
movement of spring water or the first bird
of the year in the breaking darkness,
the labourer’s voice recites ‘The Daffodils’.

The nurses are frozen, alert; the patients
seem to listen. He is hoarse but word-perfect.

Wordsworth himself would probably mention at this point his encounter with a leech gatherer when he was feeling particularly parasitical (as recorded in ‘Resolution and Independence’). In my own case, apart from poaching Annie Fisher’s chiffchaff, I have written about my daughter saying the word ‘adder’ the moment before she trod on one; and about the occasion when my mother several thousand miles away from Egypt seemed to know precisely the moment when my wife and I were experiencing a terrible desert storm that swept away a village.

Writing poetry is about tuning in, language the necessary crystal: find the wavelength and everything connects with everything. Even names. Auden, for example, was convinced that his was of Norse origin. It wasn’t, but that didn’t prevent him translating the Edda and co-writing a book on Iceland. Kate Tempest’s surname may be an invention, but both of Penelope Shuttle’s are on her birth certificate, as if the Fates had already decided how important myth would become to her poetry. Did the ‘Words’ in Wordsworth fertilize the growth of the poet’s mind? What if Alexander Pope had been called something less imperial? Not that a change of name can make you write better: the composer Arnold Bax published verse as Dermot O’Byrne, yet still sounded like bad Yeats.

The effect of such hypersensitivity can be to turn the poet into someone apparently very boring, who has (as Keats put it in one of his letters) ‘no identity’, who disdains small talk and is indifferent to everyday aspirations. While all around are planning to conquer Kilimanjaro or at least to build their own extension, the poet may only want to put the right words in the right order. Those discussions about agents and printruns and life-changing publisher advances won’t happen either. On the other hand, the poet will have a community who will understand that reference to the Martians or the Forwards, a trochee or a pantoum, Oswald or Prynne…

And such exchanges are not only with the living. I don’t mean the kind of spooky ‘automatic writing’ that Yeats indulged in, or James Merrill’s epic years at the ouija board communicating with great artists of the past. No, it’s simply that the moment you write a line about the moon, you are in conversation with Coleridge and Philip Sidney and Sylvia Plath. If it’s bats you’re describing, like it or not, D. H. Lawrence is involved (and probably Les Murray). If loss is your theme, remember what Elizabeth Bishop did with it in her villanelle. Money? You’d better not recycle Pope. Whether it’s the futility of war… or your mistress’s eyes … or being a sixty-year-old smiling man, you are all together now in the House of Poetry. You have a new family, and you will need to adjust to them.

The poet’s actual family can suffer, of course. Any writer is going to be solitary, but poets may (confusingly) have to become performers too. This can change both them and their poetry — the thrill of audience reaction, the joy of thumping a tub. And it can be dangerous, as Ezra Pound discovered after his wartime broadcasts in Italy. He is not the only poet to have been misled by his success, but was the very disconnectedness of his style a factor in leading him astray? Does coherent syntax confer social responsibility? Later, Anne Sexton and others of her generation found their way to celebrity’s cliff edge, but it wasn’t the actual writing that led them there. It was the pressure to be visibly and dramatically transfigured by their own work. If the poet isn’t torn apart, it was felt, then why should we be? So the rock musicians moved in.

The desperation to find a ‘high’ equal to that ‘spirit of delight’ for which Shelley longed (‘Rarely, rarely comest thou…’) can lead to all kinds of addiction. Indeed, it’s the absence of poetry, the thirst for it, that’s more likely to provoke change. Poets have destroyed relationships for it, have gone to war for it. Some more clear-sighted (Rosemary Tonks for instance) turned away from their early success and accepted they were no longer poets. Rimbaud became an arms dealer. Larkin disappeared into the misanthropic shell he had made for himself. But they also serve who only sit at their desks and wait for the spirit to return, as it did for George Herbert:

     And now in age I bud again,
After so many deaths I live and write;
     I once more smell the dew and rain,
And relish versing...

And there are innumerable examples of writing bringing about a positive change in the writer: a process of personal healing (from The Waste Land to Birthday Letters) or reconciliation (as in Denise Levertov’s responses to Vietnam and El Salvador).

Poets are unlike other writers in many ways, but one crucial and overlooked difference is the fact that they will expect (or at least hope) to see their individual collections gathered into Selected or Collected editions. These are traditionally edited by the poets themselves and usually arranged chronologically, obliging them to confront and judge what once they were. It’s salutary. But having undergone the experience myself, I feel now that every writer of a certain age should take down their first book and read it. It won’t happen in the Biblical twinkling of an eye, but we will all be changed.

John Greening is a poet, critic and editor. Recent books include his edition of Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (2015), and a collaboration with Penelope Shuttle, Heath (2016).

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