Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Poetry is an addiction.

When your life feels like one big, long, endless effort to write a poem, you're a poetry-addict. I'm either working on a poem, fretting because I'm not working on a poem, observing life / events / objects with a view to their poem-potential, and worst of all too busy looking for the poem in the experience instead of actually just living the experience.

On the one hand it feels like an inauthentic way to live, as if the poem is cannabalising my life, myself, for its own ends because poems don't stick to the facts they transform experience / objects to suit the poem. However, on the other hand, the constant analysis of myself, my life, experiences mean that life doesn't just blindly happen to me unchallenged or without thought. I'm deeply aware of my life, I constantly examine it which, according to that old Greek guy, means it's worth living but more importantly, for me, means it is an authentic way of living. Poems don't tell things exactly as they are but I think they do tap into deeper truths about ourselves.

I can understand why Wallace Stevens had the view that poetry could replace religion, in the times when I've struggled most with doubt I almost thought this could be possible too. It's a funny old life, but it's the one I've chosen to lead. Although, you could say, with an addiction there's never really a choice.

So I'm sitting here trying to write a poem and constantly checking emails, hoping for a reply from a poetry editor. I'm still reading Stevens and back to Claire Crowther too. Does it sound terrible to admit that while I really love many of Ted Hughes' poems, reading him in abundance bores me senseless? I can't go near Plath at all now, her influence is just too great on my poems otherwise. I read John Burnside's Black Cat Bone a while back and I'm only really now beginning to digest it so I'll be pulling that out again. I borrowed some techniques from Janet Sutherland's  Hangman's Acre for a few poems I wrote a couple of months back so I'll be looking at her collection again too.


Danish dog said...

I think quite a few poets, me included, often deliberately forget they're poets, consciously at least, until they want to begin a poem. Then they remember that they're poets. I remember Douglas Dunn telling me in 1995 that he'd stopped writing poetry. A good joke, and I also laughed in his face (not unpleasantly, I hope). It's a way of giving the muse space.

Marion McCready said...

for me, it's so hard to get my brain back into the poem-zone when I'm out of it that I'm trying hard to stay in it right now!

Jim Murdoch said...

I wrote six poems last week, the first new stuff this year. It felt good to be writing again and all were good poems. They came easily which is the way my best work does. I don’t really get poets who work at poems. I work at prose but poems come quite naturally and almost always nearly fully formed requiring very little shaping on the page. I think this is why I’m always more pleased when I’ve written a poem than when I’m working on a novel. There is a purity to poetry. I never try and force it but try to be content with whatever I produce. That doesn’t mean I’m not constantly on the lookout for poetry because I am but mostly the good ideas, the best ideas, come completely out of the blue only they’re not out of the blue because my subconscious has been pottering with them for weeks.

I don’t think of writing as an addiction. An addiction is something unnatural. Writing is, for people like you and I, the most natural of things. I like that I can write every day and although it’s true that I need to write every day it is a natural need; I need to sleep every day, to eat every day, to breathe every day. I could get by without sleep or food but not without breathing. Does that mean I’m addicted to air? That’s just silly. I need to write but there isn’t always stuff that needs to be written. That’s what I was on about in this old poem:

      UNTITLED DOODLE (4.3.85)

      Unable to find words angry enough
      yet still needing to write,
      he resorted to scribbling wildly,
      and ended doodling:
      boxes within boxes.

      4 March 1985

I have no idea what happened on 4th March 1985 that I felt I needed to include the date in the poem’s title. No doubt it was something that I thought I’d remember forever. Now only the anger and frustration live on. The poem cannibalised the moment, to use your expression, but the moment was lost in the process. There is looking for poems and simply being receptive. I’d like to think that while I was going through whatever made me so angry in 1985 I was fully engaged in the experience; it was afterwards that I felt the need to channel my feelings into a poem, to discharge them, but the words refused to come, still the need to write remained. There have been plenty of times I’ve felt the conditions were perfect for poetry but the words haven’t come and then when I’ve least expected them they’ve arrived. My belief is that during the in-between time I have been working on the poem and that’s why after six months of nothing I can produce six very different poems bam! bam! bam!

Poetry is natural. It can be produced under any circumstances and artificial pearls look like real pearls from a distance.

Danish dog said...

Well, you can be in the poem-zone without expecting to write stuff of your own. Translation, critque and editing are ways of working with poetry without consciously thinking of writing it yourelf. Though of course you're in training for it. My advice would be that you try to enjoy poetry more. It shouldn't be a grind. No one says you have to write so and so many poems by the end of the year.

Rachel Fox said...

Ah poetry madness! Deep breaths, deep breaths.
And having young kids is madness enough...

Marion McCready said...

I agree, Jim, that the subconscious is always working. that's the thing with your poems, they are idea-based, mine, by and large, aren't. so I'd expect our writing processes to be quite different. though I'd say that the completion of a poem produces quite a high for me, and I'm addicted to that high :)

Duncan, I agree, and doing all of these other things train the subconscious so that when the poem-writing time comes it all benefits it. I don't mean to come across as writing as a grind, but it is a mental discipline. I'm not trying to achieve a specific number of poems per year, I just want to achieve what I think I'm possible of, I want to reach my poem-writing potential. and to do that I have to be more disciplined about it, but I love the challenge of it, trying to unpuzzle the poems that are just out of my reach but I can sense that are there. I only speak for myself of course, everyone writes differently.

Marion McCready said...

yes, it's all madness but what would we do without it :)

Dominic Rivron said...

Looking for poem potential. Is it true to say one finds the poem potential in a thing when one isn't looking for it/least expects to find it? Sometimes, I think, it just dries up. Others, it flows.

Marion McCready said...

most of the time the thing with the poem potential is staring me in the face while I'm busy trying to force a poem out of something else :)

Dominic Rivron said...

Yes! I find it the same composing music. You have to keep trying - not because you're going to turn the sow's ear of an idea you're thinking of into a silk purse but because if you keep pushing it then in a quiet moment a better and probably completely different idea will pop into your head! This is all a roundabout way of saying what is often said, that you can't wait around hoping inspiration will strike. Perhaps one has to consciously go through the motions of what one wants one subconscious to do in order to get one's subconscious to do it.

Tim Love said...

I once looked up some criteria for substance dependence. Warning signs include (1) Tolerance develops, indicated by (a) larger doses of the substance being needed to produce the desired effect, and (b) the effects of the drug becoming markedly less if only the usual amount is taken. (2) The person recognizes excessive use of the substance, may have tried to reduce it but has been unable to do so. (3) Much of the person's time is spent in efforts to obtain the substance or recover from its effects. (4) Withdrawal symptoms develop when the person stops taking the substance or reduces the amount. The person may also use the substance to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Like those who become addicted to exercise, some writers exhibit guilt if they don't write daily, and are prone to cross-addiction. Because writing encourages isolation, is cheap, and is encouraged as a form of therapy to escape other addictions, it attracts addicts.

Marion McCready said...

I agree, Dominic. inspiration rising completely from nowhere happens so very rarely.

so you're saying writers have addictive personalities per se well aside from poetry my only other addiction is coffee but the two go hand in hand of course! :)
I think part of the guilt is based on the fact that we have to spend so much time thinking, absorbing what we've read and letting it all come together subconsciously before we can produce the actual poem that, to all intents and purposes, it looks like from the outside complete inactivity and sheer laziness!

Danish dog said...

“Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”
Gloria Steinem

Taken from:

Marion McCready said...

I think my husband would be saying I should be doing housework... ;)

swiss said...

i struggle with the analogy of addiction which has the suggestion of a problem implicit within it. also, i'd suggest, if all one was doing was writing poetry then i think it'd most likely be a self terminating exercise as all that outside stuff keeps you form getting repetitive and boring!

i had a week of poetry last week (in between other things). today is painting and prose, maybe if i can squeeze it in, sculpture later. tomorrow, design and prose. and not forgetting reading and bike.

i don't think a life based in creativity is addictive, more just sensible and really, to be honest, better fun.

Marion McCready said...

well I'm addicted to chocolate and there ain't no problem with that! ;)

I guess what I'm trying to say is that poetry / writing in general, uniquely, can become a kind of prism through which all other activities can be viewed. I really love the Holub quote which sums it up so well for me the all-encompassing nature of writing and absurdity of it too.

Roxana said...

i agree with many of the aspects of "addiction" you list here, just that for me it's photography :-)
(including the "high" one gets from it, for me _during_ the process, less after completion).

Marion McCready said...

I'd love the hear about your 'process' of photography sometime :)