Letter to a Young Poet
First of all, give up if you can. Nobody who isn’t neurotically driven should be in the game, because the chances of failure are too high, and the disappointments are too cruel. So we can safely assume that you are writing poetry because you must, and not just because you think it a more rewarding activity than stacking shelves. The latter assumption is statistically wrong anyway: the average stacked shelf is not only more useful to society than the average poem, it is actually superior as a work of art.
Thus committed by a burning, Miltonic compulsion to your lifetime’s destiny, you will have already noticed that your work attracts more blame than praise, and more indifference than either. Train yourself to care less about the praise. You should work your new poem to perfection not because it will please more people that way – it might please fewer – but because in its finished state it will prove itself an independent artefact invulnerable even to your own doubts. If the poem has its own confidence, the day will come when you can look back on it and wonder how you did it. Usually that day, if it comes at all, comes soon; but it seldom comes immediately, so keep back anything you write until you are sure that it is really finished. Through this point runs the dividing line between the amateur and the professional. If the initial formative impulse is strong enough, there is a tendency to overlook soft spots and decide prematurely that the thing is done. Don’t trust your enthusiasm until it dies down.
Geoffrey Grigson, a powerful editor in his day, thought that a poet should not keep a notebook. He claimed to be able to detect a “notebook poet” a mile off, in the way that the ageing Malcolm Muggeridge claimed that he could tell a woman was on the pill by the dead light in her eyes. Geoffrey Grigson was wrong. Keep a notebook: an ordinary quarto exercise book will do fine. If the observations you put into it are registered with sufficient precision, they might start to become poems, and can be transferred to your work book. The work book should be folio, so as to let you scan the whole poem as it builds. The work book can also be used for technical exercises. As a general rule nothing should go into your work book except poems asking to be finished, but few of them will get that far if you haven’t mastered a range of manoeuvres for shifting the order of words about in service of a form. You can do without technical competence and still have a career, but you can’t have very many finished poems, and no poems at all which will be shaped in unexpected directions by the set form you have chosen for them. Without technical expertise you can never surprise yourself, and thus will rarely surprise anybody else. There might be no need to master the villanelle or sestina, but you should certainly never stop practising your iambic pentameters and tetrameters, if only to have a name for something you have done accidentally. To get your caesura and anacrusis working smoothly, you can safely work on sonnets of pure nonsense as long as you resist the urge to give them titles and submit them to Poetry (Chicago).
In a properly kept work book there will always be a clear distinction between the technical mock-up and the real poem on its way towards completion. If the latter takes twenty years to get there, console yourself with the thought that your notebooks and work books are visible proof, if only to yourself, that waiting for inspiration is part of the process. When the final, provably inspired work is lifted from the work book and transferred to the computer, the process of eternal modification might very well seem to start all over again, but don’t abandon it yet. Eventually the poem will tell you it is done by asking no more. Or else it will tell you it was misconceived by just lying there, saying nothing. Abandon it then.
Play a long game. To aid you in this judicious patience, it helps to have a brilliant, sensitive, and critically scrupulous friend to read your completed manuscript, but only if his objections are those that you would have made yourself, given time. If you find that what he really objects to is not mere detail but your basic individual tone, shoot him.
There is no reason to shoot critics as long as they quote you. Even the most hostile critic is working for you if he quotes you; and the chances are, he being his tin-eared self, that the line he picks out as self-evidently absurd or clumsy is one of your best, and will induce his readers to buy the very book on which he is ineptly pouring his brain-dead scorn. The dangerous critic is the bright, cultivated one who tells the world how wonderful you are. Begin learning straight away not to depend on his approval, which anyway he might be inclined not to repeat next time, lest he compromise his own renown for implacability. If you start thinking about your reputation, or even about your career as a poet, you are in the wrong frame of mind. What matters most is the poem, not the poet. A poet who worries because he hasn’t been in any of the ritzier periodicals often enough lately would be better off busking his latest poem in the town square and seeing how it goes over. And there is always his personal website, as long as he remembers that everything written carefully for print should be written twice as carefully for the web. But if you need reminding to take pains, you shouldn’t be doing this stuff anyway. A poem is something that never stops telling you to be careful until it’s done: you get it started, go on developing it, and keep watching its tone until the whole thing sings.
To that end, if you feel the need of a role model, copy the sense of order that he brings to his phrases, and not the disorder with which he lived his life. If you are a male poet, there is nothing to be learned from how Robert Lowell, in his mania, stomped around pretending he was Hitler, or proposed to the air hostess on a transatlantic flight. Try to learn instead from how he put his images together in “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket”. If you are a female poet, and lucky enough to be a lesbian, copy Elizabeth Bishop’s verbal precision but don’t imagine that her alcoholism helped her towards it. She didn’t. As for Sylvia Plath, it wasn’t her suicide that made her a great poet; just as Anne Sexton’s suicide didn’t make her Sylvia Plath. For poets of any gender, the idea that only an intense life can produce intense poetry is a very bad one. If saying interesting things doesn’t strike you as an interesting enough activity, join the army.
In the periodicals and publishing houses, the best editors already know about most of the things I have advised you of; and the very best are usually poets themselves, so they have felt all this on the skin. That doesn’t mean you should respect their opinion if they dislike your current poem, but with any editor it’s always worth trying again with the next poem. There is plenty of bitchery among editors, and some of it is towards contributors: but all editors are united in their desire to print something by you if they find it good. The editor’s position is a practical one: he or she is more concerned with printing something attractive to read than with helping to decide starting positions in the world-historical struggle towards immortality. You should have the same priorities. Nobody is asking you to descend to the level of show business, if that’s the way you feel about the clueless punters; but if you can’t bring yourself to write something readable, their fickle glance will move on.
If even a few people remember a line or two in a poem you wrote, you’re not just getting there, you’re there. That’s it: and all the greater glory is mere vanity. When Raleigh bade farewell to the world’s vanities – honoured rags, glorious bubbles – he put his best efforts into the poem with which he did it, and which no audience might ever read; a poem he crafted as if he were starting his life again, and had never fought the Spanish armada, or sailed to America, or dodged for his life when the Queen fell for him. Seamus Heaney faithfully tending his creative writing classes at Harvard, and Philip Larkin stacking shelves in his library at Hull, were both trying to tell you something: even if the blaze of poetic glory descends on you, somewhere in the middle of it you should maintain the realisation that your status as a poet is a side issue. Nothing matters except your new poem. Is the thing that demanded to be written demanding to be read aloud? Does it make your mouth move when you read? You might feel childish if it does, but try to remember that this whole misbegotten adventure began when you were very young and said something clever. It made you famous in your family, which should be fame enough while you get on with the business of saying something clever again.
It’s the task you were born to, or you think you were; and if it turns out that you were wrong, there are hundreds of other tasks that are poetic too, or can be made so if attended to with sufficient care and style. Your sense of dedication is one of the best things about you, so if you can’t use it doing this, use it doing something else — just as long as you get enough spare time to go on reading poetry, the second best thing after writing it, as I’m sure you agree.
by Clive James
Clive James is the author of more than forty books – essays, literary and television criticism, travel writing, verse and novels, plus five volumes of autobiography. As a television performer he appeared regularly for both the BBC and ITV. His translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy and his 2015 collection Sentenced to Life were both Sunday Times top ten bestsellers. In 2003 he was awarded the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for Literature, in 2012 he was appointed CBE and in 2013 an Officer of the Order of Australia. Clive James’ Collected Poems 1958-2015 was published by Picador in 2015.
* Corrections: A previous version of this Letter stated that it was Adrienne Rich who committed suicide, perhaps to emulate Sylvia Plath. However it was, in fact, Anne Sexton.