Thursday, July 6, 2017

Becoming a Poet (Or Not)

Typing up my old poems this morning was (to use one of my favourite phrases) a trip down memory lane. It put me in mind of all the years I spent thinking of myself as a poet first and foremost.

I didn't really write poetry in my early childhood. I was more interested in drawing pictures and inventing stories. Me and my younger brother had a whole world of invented characters, usually inspired by cartoon characters such as He-Man and Transformers. I remember inventing a backstory of my own for He-Man, since the official backstory made no sense to me. But for the most part our characters and stories were entirely original. Looking back this seems quite intriguing to me. These weren't written-- they were enacted.

As for my first written stories, I wrote them in a hard-backed copy-book with a dark green cover. The only story I can actually remember involved an expedition into a huge, hollow stone. I read part of this story to my mother, and she told me off for inventing a character with a worm for a tongue, which she said was disgusting. I was taken aback at this, and wondered if it meant I was a sicko. I changed the detail. I can still remember the atmosphere I was trying to evoke in the story. I could have been anything from seven to eleven at this time.

Maybe I wrote poems at this time, but I don't remember doing so. I know I wrote some in primary school-- I can remember one about a Christmas tree, especially-- but I definitely considered visual art to be my forte at this time. So did everybody else. It was my "thing" in school, and I was very jealous of maintaining my pre-eminence, scanning the pictures of my class-mates for signs of progress, for any hint of a rival.

The first flesh-and-blood girl I fell for (as opposed to females on TV) was a class-mate who joined our class when I was about eight or nine. I can remember the euphoric day she was put sitting beside me. She said: "I get to sit beside the artist and see how he draws".

The first serious poem I wrote-- that is, the first poem written spontaneously to express myself-- was, funnily enough, a religious poem. It's strange because I was by no means a religious child. The poem was about inspired by hearing about the open-air Masses that were common when Catholicism was persecuted in Ireland. I considered this a very romantic idea and far superior to Mass in a church. This is doubly strange, since I've always been an indoors person. I showed it to my father and he was impressed.

I discovered poetry when I was about thirteen or fourteen. It was a sudden revelation-- to my great surprise, I found I enjoyed Yeats and Keats and other "great names". And I conceived the desire-- oh, miserable wretch!-- to Become a Poet.

I don't remember any poetry I wrote at this stage. At least, not until my family acquired a computer in 1994, when I was sixteen. I started writing poetry on this computer straight away.

My first poem was a three-line fragment called "October":

October's chilly evenings die a painful death
Succumbing slowly to the freezing tide of night.
Gone are all the sated skies of summer now.

I'm still quite fond of this one, especially "sated skies."

After that, I fell to working on my poetry in a very serious-minded way. I really laboured over every single poem. My quality control was very high, and in fact many of the poems I wrote in my late teens are better than the poems I wrote in my twenties.

I think I had the right idea. I strove to make every line flow spontaneously, to make every line interesting in some way, to seek profundity of some sort, and to avoid bathos. I was very strict about rhyme and metre, since I had contempt for free verse.

The first poem that really gave me a sense of accomplishment was a poem about school bullying, which I wrote aged seventeen or eighteen. I've posted it here before, but even so, here it is:

Those Golden Years

With wistful thoughts of safety sheets
She shrivels in the morning cold
And though her mother still repeats
How school years should be years of gold
She knows how recollection cheats;
Escape is wasted on the old.

The night was one long spread of frost
And now the ground beneath is hard.
How much these golden years have cost!
And ten years old she's battle-scarred.
At ten years old her war is lost;
She stands defeated in the yard.

Come all you boys and girls so brave
A standing target must be hit.
She does not ape how you behave
So you ape her with gibe and skit.
Come, dance upon her spirit's grave;
You were the ones who shovelled it.

I watch her turn her face to jeers;
Her childish heart has grown too hard
To melt her anguish into tears.
Her path to liberty is barred
By railings and by ruthless years
Ahead of her inside this yard.

The sense of accomplishment I felt in finishing this was like nothing I'd ever felt before. I thought, "That's a real poem!". I can remember my sister was cooking a fry in the kitchen as I wrote, and how sweet it tasted when I chomped into it. I can remember it very clearly. Strangely enough, I never feel as aware of my surroundings as when I'm completely absorbed in writing. It's like entering a deeper state of awareness.

That was a clear stand-out of my early poetry, but I think most of it was pretty good-- passable, anyway.

What's interesting to me, in retrospect, was my choice of themes. I felt I should choose only the most ordinary and humdrum subjects for my poetry. Anything else was cheating. The challenge was to wring poetry from the everyday. I wrote about swimming pools, bookshops, supermarkets, cinemas, libraries, and other ordinary situations. Nothing dramatic happened in my poems. In rejecting one of my poems, an editor referred to: "The subject matter, such as it is..." I knew what he meant.

I've had this "loyalty to the ordinary" all my life. Groundhog Day is my favourite movie because it's all about a cynic discovering the beauty of ordinary life in a small town. However, even the "small town" setting is too picturesque for my own purposes-- most people live in suburbs and conurbations today, at least in the developed world, and so I've never wanted to write about any other setting.

I also wanted to write about unusual atmospheres and states of mind-- not unusual in the sense of bizarre, but the kinds of atmosphere we all experience from time to time, such as deja-vu, or the sensation we feel in reading an old yellowed newspaper page which has been used to line a drawer, or the experience of being the blind man in blind man's buff. I was interested in such states of mind not only for themselves, but for the perspective they give us on life in general.

These poems were written not only as individual pieces, but self-consciously as a collection. Poor fool! I spent ages thinking of titles for the collection. One title was The Great Event, since the entire purpose of the work would be to convey the excitement of ordinary life. Another was Slide-Show, since I thought of the poems as projector slides in a slide-show. (I'd always found poetry in the glow of projector slides, as seen in a darkened room.) The title I chose eventually was Ambience Music, which I rather mistakenly took as the name for the piped music which is played in shops and supermarkets.

Of course, it was promptly sent back-- or rather, sent back after a delay of months-- from every publisher to whom I sent it.

I did, however, have some modest success with my individual poems. The first piece of writing I ever had published (except for pieces published in my father's community magazine) was a poem about second-hand bookshops in a 1997 copy of Books Ireland. I had another poem, about a diary, published there a few years later. I won third place in a Ballymun poetry competition, and first place a few years later. I also won third place in another local poetry competition, in village of Swords. All these things were a very big deal to me at the time.

The crescendo of my poetic career came on the last day of the millennium (unless you are going to be pedantic and insist that was December 31 2000; I mean December 31 1999). My father had asked me to write a poem marking the millennium for his magazine, The Ballymun News. I wrote it, and he was so pleased by it that he would read it out to visitors.

The British TV channel ITV were, at this time, running a competition for a poem about the millennium. More accurately, it was the "teletext" service of ITV that was running it. (American readers may not know about teletext, where it was never popular. It was a service whereby you could call up pages of text on your TV, using your remote control; a kind of magazine on your TV screen.) My brother encouraged me to send in my millennium poem, and it won. The Liverpool poet Roger McGough chose the winner. I was ecstatic. It seemed to bode well for my poetry in the twenty-first century.

During my college years, I also published poems in the college newspaper. Hardly anybody else seemed interested in writing for it. I used to have cosy chats with the editor in his office every month, as I brought my poems to him. (I was slow getting onto email.)

The twenty-first century was less kind to my poetic ambitions. In fact, I don't think I had any poetry published in magazines after that, other than a single sonnet in the UCD English Literary Society magazine. (And recently, I had a religious poem published in a magazine called Spirituality.) I've had hymn lyrics published in The Catholic Voice and Annals Australasia, though.

I became more and more disheartened about my poetic ambitions in my twenties. I also made the disastrous decision to write a poem every day, rather than lingering over each one for as long as it took. The quality of my poems went down dramatically.

Eventually, I stopped thinking of myself as a poet first and foremost. I started writing prose, which is a lot less demanding, and a lot more likely to be read. But I hope my years writing poetry has benefitted my prose writing. I hope.


  1. Thank you for writing this - a really good read. But that isn't the end of the story, surely?

    This blog has been one of the final pieces of masonry in confirming my conviction that clear-voiced poetry remains absolutely valid even when drowned out by the tide of crude song-lyrics on one hand and opaque tissues of music-free, densely-allusive verse on the other. (That is necessarily a generalisation but I don't think I'm too far off). No, there is nothing necessarily cheap, or kitsch, or wrong with simplicity, or simplicity of ornament, or plain, direct even suburban subjects; in fact many hearts hunger for just these things, just as the twentieth-century revolution against tonal music had nothing to offer in place of the tradition of beauty it shoved aside.

    Of course, history is awash with poets who have thought they could influence society with their works. That's probably a vain hope for those (like Auden) who hope for a visible, political kind of change. But poetry has its effect inwardly, on the heart, and deeply. And this is precisely why, in the Church, it's a different matter. The Church should be the home of beauty: in art, in music and in words. 'Lead with beauty', says Robert Barron, and he's right of course. I think poetry should be one of the tender prongs of the New Evangelisation.

    It occurs to me that there are plenty of Catholic writers in prose, but far fewer (any?) in verse. Now I enjoy this blog at least as much as any other blog by a Catholic writer, but my personal view, if I may make so bold, is that it shouldn't distract you from any poetic inspiration if it arises.

    What is needed is a school, or even a group, of Catholic poets writing in English - with the same attitude to verse as yours to your blog - not so much of poets writing about Catholicism but of poets whose Catholicism plainly leavens and enlightens their many-sided poetry - a loose school, working away, generous with their art and clear about their faith. Yes, a rather tall order!

    1. Hi Dominic, thanks for that comment and your very kind words.

      No, it's not the end of the story in that I'm sure I'll write more poetry. But there was a time when I would have considered my life a complete failure if I didn't get at least one poem into the Oxford Book of English Verse. (Well, that's an exaggeration, but you know what I mean.) I'm not as fixated on Being a Poet now.

      I'm glad my blog played any role in the formation of your views on traditional verse!

      And I agree with you about the need for a school of Catholic poets. Indeed, such a school may exist, but may be hidden from our view. I have a feeling that the poets of our era will only be known when they are long dead.

    2. You may well be right in that last point. I harbour a hope that there will turn out to have been rather a lot. Poetry is generally composed in secret, and the current fashion only intensifies the obligation to keep quiet.

      Of course, I might have added that I'd rejoice to hear of any writer of sincere, authentic and beautiful verse, whether Catholic or not. But my specific point was that the Church actually needs poets (and artists and composers...) as much as poets should be naturally at home in the Church.

      Of course, it can be difficult to be a poet without Being a Poet. I think it's a vocation, so, understood properly, it requires both a kind of confidence and humility.