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What Else Have I To Spur Me Into Song?

A change of place, finding a new muse, all can stimulate the writer's imagination again.

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

Having spent some months completing a long poem about Jean Sibelius, I am rather preoccupied with the creative process, and with what happens when there’s a fallow patch, a difficult ‘middle stretch’ as Louis MacNeice put it. Sibelius’s thirty-year silence has been much discussed, although it’s nowadays agreed he kept working on an eighth symphony which he eventually destroyed.

Such determination can certainly help the artist, but sometimes there’s a more practical ‘spur’, especially late in life. W.B.Yeats (born the same year as Sibelius, and source of my title) confessed to suffering from ‘long desert periods’, but found that a procedure to help his sexual potency (the Steinach operation) improved his creativity. Whether this was imagined or not, it gave the ‘wild old wicked man’ the confidence to approach his final period, and to produce the masterpieces of Last Poems. Virility, ‘lust and rage’, the quest for a theme — these became his leitmotivs.

A more recent case is that of Geoffrey Hill, whose medication for depression had a surprising side effect. He had not published a new collection for over a decade following the modest 1985 Collected, which was dominated by earlier poems, but once the lithium kicked in, there was no stopping him. Broken Hierarchies: Poems 1952–2012 covers much the same ground as the Penguin volume — except that it carries on for another 700 pages at least. Hill certainly made up for lost time, although it’s hard to think of a poet who hasn’t been stuck at some point. A few, like Philip Larkin, never quite start up again; what interests me is the sheer variety of methods poets have used to get moving.

I suspect that most of us can point to one poem we value because it marked the breaking of a blockage, or a break-through to something new or more fully achieved. It is often a particular location that does the trick. For Elizabeth Jennings the spur was Rome, looking at a fountain and finding ‘a sense of ease and delight’. The fact that she was a Roman Catholic is surely significant. The Irish poet Eavan Boland met an old woman carrying water on Achill Island (‘I sensed a power in the encounter’) and knew it was a key moment, commemorated in verse much later, but which actually occurred at the very start of her career. Basil Bunting’s career seemed to be over by 1966 (he was largely forgotten in the UK except as a minor Poundian), when the Northumbrian poet found his voice again in a memory of the humble Quaker Meeting House, Briggflatts. His autobiographical poem of that title became – as much as any poem can – a cult phenomenon.

Sometimes such a prompt might lead to a change in style, as when Derek Mahon went to the writers’ colony at Yaddo in the midst of a prolonged creative drought (though, as his biographer says, ‘drinking uncontrollably’) and was suddenly able to write a very personal verse letter, marking a new more easy-going, conversational epistolary phase. Adrienne Rich, radicalized by the experience of motherhood, chose to abandon her early much-praised formalism, and to escape its patriarchal associations. Similarly, Thom Gunn’s adoption of syllabics was involved with his own ‘coming out’. But a formal reinvention is in itself refreshing: the challenge of a complex form can be the necessary red rag to the sleepy bull of inspiration.

Then there is the encouragement of friends. It was the arrival of young Tom Pickard that prompted Basil Bunting to compose Briggflatts (‘to show the boy how it was done’). Famously, Robert Frost looked at Edward Thomas’s prose writings and pointed out that it wouldn’t take much to change them to verse. For the troubled William Cowper (1731–1800), the innocent friendship with Lady Austen at Olney provided the necessary spark. Cowper’s whimsical Muse happened to be sitting on a sofa, so she challenged him to write a poem in blank verse on that subject. ‘The Task’ is a poem that people think they don’t know until they hear ‘God made the country, and man made the town’ or ‘England, with all thy faults, I love thee still’ or ‘Variety’s the very spice of life’. Cowper’s mock-epic begins: ‘I sing the Sofa. I, who lately sang/Truth, Hope and Charity, and touch’d with awe/The solemn chords […]’

There was something equally playful going on, 180 years earlier, when George Gascoigne (1539?–77), about to enter Gray’s Inn, was asked by five friends ‘to write in verse somewhat worthy to be remembered’ on themes that they provided. But this draws closer to the commission, a useful set of jump-start leads for any poet. At one time it was the aristocracy who put in the request; nowadays it’s radio or the press. Sometimes the lines have staying power; for instance, Carol Ann Duffy’s celebrated ‘Valentine’.

There are, of course, ways of commissioning yourself. In December 1963, A.R.Ammons popped a roll of adding machine paper into his typewriter, determined not to end his poem until it ran out (ten days into the New Year). A decade later, James Merrill picked up the transcripts of some ouija board sessions he had held with his partner, David Jackson, in the early 50s. He realised that there was raw material to be found in moving a willow-pattern cup across a board of letters and numbers. Two unique and distinguished long poems emerged: Ammons’s ‘Tape for the Turn of the Year’ and Merrill’s astonishing trilogy,’The Changing Light at Sandover’. Neither Ammons nor Merrill knew what they would end up writing, but poets are invariably happy when they stumble on the right subject, the right form.

It’s hard to imagine what George Mackay Brown’s poems would look like if he’d never read the story of St Magnus or Kathleen Raine’s if she hadn’t discovered Blake. Or had James Lasdun and Michael Hofmann abandoned the idea of inviting all those poets in the early 1990s to rework Ovid’s Metamorphoses. There would have been no Tales from Ovid – Ted Hughes’s crowning collection – and many other millennial collections would have been the poorer. After Ovid shaped a decade’s poetry; its influence is still felt.

I’ve tended to emphasise the positive, but a sad truth of literary history is that death is the most dependable and effective patron. Chidiock Tichbourne wouldn’t even be remembered but for the elegy he wrote (‘My prime of youth is but a frost of cares’) before being executed. And Anne Sexton was just one of many mid-20th-century American poets indebted to ‘the ruffian on the stair’. Writers are often (to paraphrase Auden) ‘hurt’ into poetry : by war, loss, self-destructive tendencies, by the death of a partner, or a personal battle with illness (think of Clive James’s recent output). At the same time, the desire to get a poem right can be a strong incentive to live, as Robert Graves believed when he claimed that working on the thirty-five drafts of ‘The Troll’s Nosegay’ saved him from being carried off by septic pneumonia.

Graves is perhaps the most famous of recent poets who have found the spur to poetry in the inspiration of a new love. Such poets are still writing, of course. Stephen Romer, whom I interviewed recently, calls himself (while recognising the label is controversial) a ‘muse poet’. The love affair need not be anything particularly Byronic: Iain Crichton Smith was hardly the kind of chap to be consorting with the White Goddess, yet his late commitment to Donalda clearly affected him profoundly, as ‘The Leaf and the Marble’ proves.

However, the idea of a Muse has been a problem for women poets — something Eavan Boland discusses in her excellent memoir Object Lessons. As an Irish woman, she could not escape the shade of Yeats (or, indeed, Maud Gonne) knowing that ‘the project of the woman poet, connected as it is by dark bonds to the object she once was, cannot make a continuum with the sexualized erotic of the male poem.’ Perhaps the recent relaxation in gender boundaries has freed things up: consider Alyson Hallett’s ‘Toots’, for example. Whatever the inspiration or lack of it, however, a poet must remain alert, ready to be ‘surprised by joy’ as Wordsworth was … on a bridge in central London, by the words of a leech-gatherer, or remembering someone called Lucy.

John Greening’s publications include a memoir of two years in Egypt, Threading a Dream, an edition of Geoffrey Grigson’s poetry, his collection To the War Poets, and the music anthology, Accompanied Voices.

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