Friday, November 21, 2008

On Having Nothing to Say, and Saying It

Seems to me there's two approaches to writing poetry, which can be summed up as "having something to say" and "letting the something say you."

Many poets, I suspect, "have something to say": a subject, either over their whole life, or for a particular work. It could be "capitalism is bad, socialism is good" or it could be as simple as, "I had a really good time on holiday in Greece."

Others - and I sort of count myself among them - actually don't have something to say themselves, but are trying to "listen in" and then record what the world is saying to them. The American poet Jack Spicer, put it succinctly: "you don't speak to the Outside, the Outside speaks to you." He had this idea that the poem didn't come from inside the poet, but from some outside source, as a kind of channeling thing, that you ought to remove yourself as far as possible from the poem so that you can hear what the poem/world is saying to you.

I can see this as sounding terribly mystical and foggy, but I can identify with it as well. Some of my favourite poems of mine are in some ways mysterious to me - I don't know where they came from. I work out what they're about as I'm writing. Or sometimes months later, after I've read them several times or published them in magazines. I still don't know what some of my poems are "about."

That is really why I started cutting and pasting, and why even though I don't use that technique as much now, chance techniques are still really important to me. Poetry to me is not about imposing my view of the world on other people but about seeking what the world is trying to say to me.

All this, of course, is only a partial explanation of what I do. And it doesn't mean that I've totally rid myself of ego in some zen kind of way. I'm still the same bundle of ego and uncertainty I used to be. But it does explain why "meaning" as in something imposed by me on the reader rather than something the readers discovers in the act of reading, is something I might want to get rid of in my own poems.


Gareth said...

Reading Ted Hughes' letters earlier this year I was really struck by his mission to dive into himself for source material. He would use phrases like "need to get back to that" or "there could have been more of that", particularly in relation to his Crow work.

"Letting the something say you" could be the direct opposite of that, but your phrase "listen in" makes me wonder whether these approaches are really so different.

I'm not well read in Jung, et al but wonder if you regard these things channelled from "outside" as actually being echos of the subconscious.

Background Artist said...

In the 7C Amergin attributed text that gives an ancient Irish detailing of what poetry is and how it manifests humanly, which was untitled and the first one the student poet going in at fochloc (sapling) the first of seven grades - recieved on day one at bard-school (i suspect), we are told by the 1300 year dead poet that the:

".. source of these (four) joys (listed below) (the Gods) is outside the person although the actual cause of the joy is internal.

In human joy there are four divisions among the wise.

1 - Sexual intimacy;

2 - the joy of health untroubled by the abundance of goading when a person takes up the prosperity of bardcraft;

3 - the joy of the binding principle of wisdom after good (poetic) construction; and,

4 - joy of fitting poetic frenzy from the grinding away at the fair nuts of the nine hazels on the Well of Segais in the SÏdhe realm. They cast themselves in great quantities like a ram's fleece upon the ridges of the Boyne, moving against the stream swifter than racehorses driven in the middle-month on the magnificent day every seven years.

The Gods touch a person through divine and human joys so that they are able to speak prophetic poems and dispense wisdom and perform miracles, as well as offering wise judgment and giving precedents and wisdom in answer to everyone's wishes. But the source of these joys the Gods) is outside the person although the actual cause of the joy is internal."


Reading your post made me think of this clause in the text.

Bournemouth Runner said...

An interesting distinction, Steven, but I wonder if it could also be re-defined as "seeing" and "feeling" though perhaps that's more of a novelist's distinction than a poets. You at the Other Room on Wednesday?


I've deliberately been writing more spontaneously for a few years, and I believe that what you're listening to is your own unconscious mind as it releases stored impressions of the outside world and its reactions and -sometimes - ordering of them.

One of Anthony Wilson's better remarks was that "first-rate creative people don't know what they're doing," and I've often found that I do my best work in that state.

Happy Xmas, by the way.