Wednesday, May 11, 2022

My Turn to the Contemplative (I)

In October of last year, I wrote a blog post with the title "To Live Overflowingly", in which I expressed a desire to live a life packed with incident, industry and gusto. This is how it started:

In recent years, a particular ideal has seeped into my imagination-- gradually, but with ever more insistency.

I would call it "to live overflowingly."

I don't claim to embody this ideal, or even to approach this ideal. It's an ideal, something that captivates my imagination.

To put it simply (before I inevitably elaborate), it's to live with gusto, to cultivate a hearty appetite for life.

I love the line in Groundhog Day: "Well, sometimes I wish I had a thousand lifetimes." And the line in Tennyson's "Ulysses": "Life piled on life were all too little".

I think this ideal first took hold of me while reading about prolific authors. Prolific authors have always stirred my imagination. Authors such as Isaac Asimov or G.K. Chesterton or St. Augustine (five million words!) or Enid Blyton.

I love what Isaac Asimov said about himself: "Writing to me is simply thinking through my fingers."

That ideal still moves me-- especially the gusto part. But, more recently, I've been turning towards a different ideal, one that is almost the opposite.

I've been trying to be more contemplative, slower.

This applies especially to writing. Although I still like the idea of being a literary workhorse, and that works fairly well in prose, my mind is turning more and more to poetry.

At the risk of being controversial, all prose is pretty interchangeable. (I'm not talking about fiction, or about essayists such as Chesterton or Orwell-- although it actually applies to a considerable extent here, too.)

Whenever I look at any of my published pieces, I do feel a strong sense of accomplishment. I don't think I'll ever get over the thrill of seeing my words in print. It makes me happy when people tell me I have a particular style.

At the same time, there is the nagging thought: "A lot of other people could have written this. It would have been much the same."

As well as this, prose is disposable in a way that poetry is not. Of course, prose will at least get a reading, which poetry usually won't. But people read prose, put it aside, and never think about it again. If you can persuade someone to actually read a poem-- oh, huge "if"!-- and they really like it, it will mean more to them than prose ever would. People come back to poetry.


When I started writing poetry (around sixteen) I laboured over every single poem, every single line. It was finished when it was finished. The almost-good-enough wasn't good enough. Anything that read awkwardly, any weak link, had to be replaced with something better. This was the right approach and I wrote pretty good stuff, for my age.

In my twenties I had the disastrous idea of writing a poem every day, or every few days. My idea was that it would train my poetic (and writing) muscles. I compared it to practicing calligraphy, so  that one becomes a fluent calligrapher. It was a big mistake. There was a very dramatic decline in quality. I wrote some terrible poetry in my twenties-- terrible in its mediocrity, in its throwaway nature.

Recently, I've gone back to writing as I did in my teens, and even more so. On my morning tea-break in work, I take out whatever poem I'm working on (only one so far), and sit with it. If I spend the entire tea-break without writing a single word, that's OK. If I write a single line or a couple of lines, that's OK too. (W.B. Yeats, my ideal in all matters poetic, didn't let himself write more than six or seven lines at a time. I'm not that severe.)

So far, I have ten verses of a new poem that I'm pretty happy with.

The idea is to dwell with the poem, to put my soul into it, so that-- however bad it is-- at least it could never be called throwaway. To put as much thought, depth and love into it as I possibly can. As much of myself into it as I can, so that each is an episode in my life.

True, some of the greatest poems have been written in a matter of hours. John Keats, astonishingly, wrote "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer" (in my opinion, the greatest sonnet in the English language) in a single night, at the age of twenty-one. Such miracles are rare and not to be looked for.


And what if these poems are never published, if they never get an audience?

I'm reconciled to that. At least, I'm trying to be reconciled to that. I don't want it, and I would very much like for them to get an audience. But I've accepted at this stage that literary magazines and newspapers are not going to publish my poems, or that I might manage at best to get a handful published. Good or bad, they are written in traditional verse, which goes against them from the first.

And really...who reads literary magazines or slim volumes of poetry, anyway? Posting a poem on Facebook probably gets as much of a readership. My hope is that a poem that really speaks to people will find its way, however it comes to their attention.

And even if they never do (which would admittedly disappoint me), there is value in the process. We live in a prosaic society, an anti-poetry society. I don't want to be carried along on the tide. Patrick Kavanagh once said: "A young man who writes poetry is a young man, but a man of forty who writes poetry is a poet." I'm going to write poetry. I'm going to talk about my poetry and ask people if they'd like to hear my poems. It seems to me as worthy a topic of conversation as many others, even if it's a dire poem.

In my next post, I'll write about other aspects of this "turn to the contemplative", aside from writing poetry.


  1. I don't do many exciting things myself,I often consider that living life fully can be done in other ways- appreciation of every strain of music,a flower,a bird,a distant piece of news, daylight fading over use-unknown-office buildings. Poetry production probably often starts here anyway? I often think about The Diving Bell and the Butterfly novella, the thoughts of a man who could only use an eyelid for dictation. His description of being wheeled to the sea is particularly memorable.

    1. Well, that's exactly what I'm trying to get at. That's pretty much the message of Groundhog Day. I appreciate the lyricism of "daylight fading over use-unknown office buildings".

      I don't do many exciting things either!