Tuesday, December 27, 2005

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.