Letter to a Young Poet
Thank you for your letter. In answer to the question you have put to me about how you might go about nurturing your talent for writing poems, I have these thoughts:
Sometimes you come across a poem whose impact is unlike anything you have read or heard before; it causes you sensations of captivity, sensuous delight, even delirium and, paradoxically leaves you feeling strangely free; you find yourself repeating its lines to yourself; you wonder at its ingenuity and mastery, feel that you are being spoken to directly; you find yourself inhabiting its world; you notice that it has a certain kinship with other great poems; it renders something with such authority and accuracy that it takes your breath away. It makes you chuckle. The poem is in your mind. It refreshes your spirit. These are the poems you want to write.
There is a wealth of resources at your disposal to acquaint you with the disciplines involved in writing poems, to encourage you to find your ‘voice’, to develop your taste, to make your writing stronger, bolder, more convincing. There are enduring friendships to be made with fellow poets. There is the practice of close reading to make your own. There are the snakes and ladders of the ‘poetry world’. And so on. But the manner in which you have put this question to me gives me reason to believe that this is not what you are asking.
It may sound presumptuous but what I suggest is that you somehow change your life. I’m not saying that joining an expedition to some far country to study the life cycle of the pangolin will necessarily have a beneficial effect on your poems – although it probably will, if that’s your interest. What I do mean is that you feel, listen, learn about, observe, study, practise, pay attention to the world around you, and enrich the scope of your life, cultural and otherwise, with a new willingness, sense of pilgrimage and passion. That could be regularly spending a day taking photographs, or cooking dishes you’ve not tried before, going to a fine-art auction, volunteering your services to a cause that matters to you, attending a symposium on something of global importance, having a pedicure, a dance class, engaging in some scientific pursuit, learn to play a musical instrument, getting a dog. I am not suggesting that rarefied material become your subject matter; on the contrary. Or that you fritter your time away on distractions. What I mean is that you create for yourself a ‘Violon d’Ingres’ – an additional practise which requires learning and perfecting, and which increases your lust for life and activates parts of yourself that have been dormant.
Another essential is that you have something to say. I have found that the only way of making that possible is to write a lot, wherever you happen to be, and that you look very carefully at what you write, even if it displeases you, and think about the direction that your apparent intention is taking you. And that you feed that direction in a way that suits you. It is more than likely that the content of your preoccupations will shift and change in ways you did not expect. This how to surprise yourself. Eventually a kind of meta-subject matter might become apparent.
I also believe that it matters to read the works of thinkers, writers and scholars in a variety of disciplines, who have had a major influence in say, anthropology, history, archaeology, philosophy, politics, medicine, or fine art, etc. Not only does it matter; it will also make you happier. No it only will it make you happier, it will make you more free. I realise that, by some bizarre mixture of arrogance (Imagination’s good enough for me, Thanks!) and false modesty (I’m not a scholar, by nature), I have tended to view this kind of reading as the preserve of learned people. Now that I am reading works of this kind, I find that by learning more about things of which I know only a little, I am experiencing a wonderful release from my habitual self-absorption and having thoughts I never expected.
Some titles and names spring to mind: Black Skin, White Masks by Franz Fanon, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals by Iris Murdoch, The Collected Writings of Erik Satie, The Road to Xanadu by Livingston Lowe, The Sexual Contract by Carole Pateman (as well as works by Marie Stopes, Stella Brown and Margaret Sanger, all who have been acknowledged in bringing down the rate of maternal and infant mortality), Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Thurston, Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin, A Moon in a Dewdrop: Writings of a Zen Master by Dogen, Tristes Tropiques by Claude Levi-Strauss, Watteau by Anita Brookner, Modernist Architecture: Streets in the Sky by Alison and Peter Smithson, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, The Gay Science by Friedrich Nietzsche, Totem and Taboo by Sigmund Freud, The Making of the English Working Class by E.P Thompson. Of course there are hundreds … thousands more. The reason I suggest this is perhaps best encapsulated in these words of Edward Said: ‘What do you know? What do you need to know?’
Lastly I recommend the proposition of Charles Baudelaire in ‘Enivrez-Vous’:
You should always be drunk. There’s nothing else: it’s the only question. To escape the horrible burden of time that breaks your shoulders and bends you to the earth, you must get drunk without stopping.
But on what? On wine, poetry or virtue, whatever you like. But get drunk.
And if one day, you should wake on the steps of a palace, in the green grass of a ditch, or in your lonely room, your drunkenness diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, ask everything that flees, everything that groans, everything that rolls, or sings, or speaks – what time is it? – and the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock will answer you: It is time to get drunk! To end your martyred slavery to time, get drunk, get drunk without ceasing! On wine, on poetry or on virtue, whatever you like!
I wish you every kind of success.
An artist as well as a poet, Annie Freud is the author of three collections of poetry from Picador, The Best Man That Ever Was (2007), The Mirabelles (2014), and The Remains (2015).