Skip to main content

Urgent invitations

Reading a review in the TLS of a book of essays by WS Merwin in which reviewer talks about the different Merwins, the different poets that live in the neighbourhood , as it were, and I liked that idea of different kinds of poets, different impulses, co-exisiting. I find that a much more congenial notion than a poet of one aspect, one kind, recognisable and predictable. But the reviewer also made another point about Merwin that I think is important. He talked about the Merwin who writes out of impulsion, and the Merwin who writes out of invitation. The first referred to a need to write something, the second to a kind of professional writing, where the writer sits down at his desk, because this is what he does, and produces language in the hope or expectation that this invitation might lead to a discovery. This seems to me to go to the heart of the poet’s relationship with his writing, particularly in an age that favours and expects productivity. The point was that a good deal of Merwin’s work begs the question, ‘did this really need to be written?’. And should something ‘need to be written’ if it’s any good or is that just old fashioned romantic twaddle? I don’t think it is, therefore I think that one characteristic of poetry is its built-in sense of compulsion, urgency. There are many kinds and levels of urgency, of course, but if it isn’t there in some shape or form you have dead language on the page. And yet, there is something puritanical about the impulsion model too, something of the old Romantic imperative. What’s wrong with invitation as a mode of working? Not a thing. Exercising the poetry muscle seems like a very good and necessary activity to me, a way of getting at the core. Urgency sometimes has to be dug for, waited for, invited.


Mark Granier said…
"Exercising the poetry muscle seems like a very good and necessary activity to me, a way of getting at the core. Urgency sometimes has to be dug for, waited for, invited."

Yes, invitation is a good keyword here, a good touchstone. In his book about the art of writing, 'The Spooky Art', Mailer made a valuable point about the writer's necessity to faithful to his/her unconscious (essentially the "muse"). I don't have the book with me, but it went something along these lines. While inspiration is only intermittent at best, if a writer keeps those appointments with the writing-desk at a set time each day for a given number of hours it is an important act of faith, a kind of promise. The unconscious is thus given assurance that when it offers something there is a vessel waiting. According to Mailer, if the writer breaks this promise (or rescinds this invitation) too often, the unconscious begins to lose interest and, consequently, to offer less.
Rob Mackenzie said…
Your last four lines saved this for me! Spot on.

Last April, I tried a "write a new poem every day for a month" discipline. It was really hard going and I wrote several poems which, even if they seemed OK at the time, weren't really worth writing in retrospect.

But I'm still really pleased with a few of the poems I wrote that month, usually after a little revision. They now seem urgent whether they seemed that way at the time or not (that, of course, is purely a self-assessment).
The digging, the waiting, the invitation, made daily over an extended period of time, perhaps produces its own momentum. It would kill me to do it every month, but the practice has something to recommend it, say, once a year.

Popular posts from this blog

Songs of the earth (1): Yannis Ritsos

The Meaning of Simplicity
I hide behind simple things so you’ll find me; if you don’t find me, you’ll find the things, you’ll touch what my hand has touched our hand-prints will merge.
The August moon glitters in the kitchen like a tin-plated pot (it gets that way because of what I’m saying to you), it lights up the empty house and the house’s kneeling silence– always the silence remains kneeling.
Every word is a doorway to a meeting, one often cancelled, and that’s when a word is true: when it insists on the meeting.
(Translated by Edmund Keeley, published in The Greek Poets: From Homer to the Present, Norton, 2010)
Yannis Ritsos’ output as a poet was enormous. He published more than a hundred collections of poetry, and often wrote with great speed, sometimes producing three collections in a single year. Such protean fluency can interfere with the reception of a poet in his own culture, and it can also inhibit or distort the reception in translation. How do you choose? How much o…


My new book, Sway, Versions of Poems from the Troubadour Tradition, will be published by Gallery Press in October. This one is a riff rather than a version, taking as its starting point a line by the 12th century trobairitz, Beatriz, Countess of Dia.

Riff for Beatriz
Ab joi et ab joven m’apais

I feed on joy and youth    the rest
forget    all texts
abandoned     I feed
with joy     I feed on you or would
were you here    were I there
by the lake    in the wood    where the
nightingales are    I hear them
the buds along the branches roar
the frost withdraw    I feast on the season
that you may come to me
like light to the trees    I set
my pilgrim heart to roam
I am here   your loosened armour  your
Saracen hands   I feed
on spices and desert air
the rest is argument    discourse
the lines unwinding
the lines bound like the twigs of a broom
to sweep you away and pull you back
my dust is yours together we blow through the meadows
I was here but now
a stir of language in the trees     bird…