Sometimes people ask of a particular poem: Did it have to be written? Is this a necessary poem? They are wondering if there was sufficient pressure for the poem to become meaningful in the assumption that validity is based on such pressure.
But what kind of pressure? Is the assumption that the poet as a person should be undergoing some sort of crisis, a dark night of the soul? And would a poem written under such circumstances always be better than one without such a dark night to source it?
It strikes me as a rather specialised demand, as if the reader could somehow partake of an emotion that preceded the poem by reading the poem. The reader, in effect, – forgive the phrase – leeches off that emotion by relating it to a possible crisis of his or her own. There is such an assumption behind a good number of anthologies such as Survival Kit or Look, We Have Come Through. Poetry is seen not exactly as a palliative but as a way of sharing dark nights.
I don’t rubbish this at all – the poetry of witness can be very powerful and I myself have written what may be described as such – but I live at a slightly sceptical angle to it. Is crisis, I wonder, more valid than the general tenor of life? Is the consolation of poetry in this respect a matter of pooling the more grandiose emotions? Is it too easy an identification? Is it one enormous poem-hug?
The trouble, I think, is that it is in danger of bypassing a vital poetic process: that of discovery. I don’t think the poem is a big emotion we carry around with us that we then pour into language. See, here is the emotion, here is language, now here is the poem. As soon as we enter the poem, the writing of it, we are on a course of constant possible deflections. Rightly so. We don’t own language, we can’t boss it around. The writing of poetry is not a matter of telling but of listening, and the process of the poem, the emotional sense of it, is something discovered through listening to language. That listening is a matter of intense concentration, not so much on the subject and its attendant material, but to what is happening before us, in the act of writing.
That doesn’t mean we begin with nothing – there is never exactly nothing, in any case – we have what Cézanne in art called a petite sensation that doesn’t go away, that cannot be abandoned, but is modified and alters as the language opens up.
A poem may not have to be have been written. It need not have begun as an emotional imperative, a necessity. It can become so in the act of writing. To put it another way a poem about the death of a loved other is by no means assured of becoming a good poem. What is necessary for you as an impulse might have lost its way in language by remaining the biggest object on the horizon that obscures everything else. So the poem might begin to reach for the ready phrase, the phrase that most readily offers comfort. Its sense of urgency however remains outside the language whereas the true urgency is in the language that cares not a whit for us, neither for you, nor for me.
The idea of the ‘occasional poem’ is far from simple. The poem on the death of a friend, or one born out of a moment of specific anxiety, indeed of any crisis, is itself occasional. Nevertheless it is personal. The poem of a Poet Laureate on a major public matter is also occasional, though assumed to be less personal.The person of the Poet Laureate is not a person but an office, one might argue.
I wouldn’t argue quite that, in fact I would argue the idea of the poem as something that might proceed not from a personal place but as something that might be offered out of office. Consider elegies, those verses on the Death of X or Y. The elegy may be for a friend, but it might equally be for someone not directly known but whose death is registered at a personal level. There is likely to be a difference in the form of address – after all we speak one way to those we know and another to those we have not met, or at least it might seem proper for us to know the difference – but the poem arises out of that form.
I myself have always written poems for family and friends’ occasions – for birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, various stages in life, even for Christmas. All these poems, some better, some worse, began simply as the desire to produce a homage out of my art. All began with small things, something as small as an idea, or a recalled event. the first line appeared, then, as the second loomed as a possibility, my attention focused ever more on what I looked for as imperatives of language.
That was the imperative that took over. None of these poems was ‘necessary’ in the sense usually meant. The initial pressure was only to give something as a gift: the actual pressure developed in the writing, the same pressure, precisely the same, as when I was writing longer poems about anything I cared deeply about, a theme that ‘demanded’ to be given some form, though I would never know what form at the start. My books carry a good number of poems written precisely for such occasions.
So with Christmas poems. The pressure is to avoid cliché, to let that pressure be felt at every juncture of each line and each word. That pressure is the pressure of the imagination, the auditory imagination if you like. The result may not be like the breaking of the Titanic on the ice, it may be just a breath of delight, or love, subsuming the Titanics of the everyday, about which we know, which underlie every delight, every love. The pressure is on both: it is both person and office. Ex officio husband or father or friend I speak thus and thus. But the necessity is in the poem, not before it.
Ben Jonson wrote a marvellous poem on the death of his first son. What greater pressure can exist you would think! It is a brief and formal work full of grief, such as I or anyone might understand and find shareable. But this is how the poem ends.
Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.
(On My First Son)
That is a piece of poetry aware of itself as office. It is elegantly put. Jonson is deeply aware of the elegance too. It ends in a general thought. The poetry is not in the pity. It is in the poetry that is both pity and itself.