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Do You Like Your Favourite Poets To Surprise You?

Last week, I read a blog article by George Szirtes in which he finds a second-hand poetry collection, published in 1993, by Charles Boyle, and enjoys reading it on the train. In the comments section, Charles Boyle appears and mentions that, only the day before, he had written an article on why he hadn’t written any poems for a decade. I went to his blog and read the article and also a follow-up article on the same theme. I found these articles very moving. Boyle himself points out, rightly I think, that there is no mystique about any of this, but it’s the very lack of mystique that makes this paragraph count for something:

I wasn’t good enough. I wanted to get a new tone and a new range of material into the work, and I didn’t have the technique, the ability. Writing more of what I’d already written, variations on poems already in print, was pointless – firstly because there was no thrill in this, secondly because it wasn’t as if this was an income-generating activity that I needed to sustain to keep myself in cigarettes.

Well, I don’t know. Some good writers are their own fiercest critics and underestimate the quality of their own work compared to that of others. But perhaps, too, adding to the millions of poems already published may feel pointless unless you feel you really have something singular and groundbreaking to add to the mix.

Many poets churn out the same kind of poems collection after collection for years – some for decades! – and it doesn’t seem to bother them. They become a brand, and readers know exactly what to expect before they open a page. But other poets are more restless and shift with every collection, often not publishing with the same frequency and regularity as the brand-poets. They need the thrill of moving on, and the thrill of simply filling a blank sheet of paper with yet-another-poem in their well-honed style isn’t enough.

As readers, do you look forward to your favourite poets churning out a new collection with ‘more of the same’? Or do you prefer them to progress, to get “a new tone and new range of material” into their work?

This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. I want the sense that the poet couldn’t possibly help herself from writing whatever it is. I want the sense that the poems insisted on being written, not that the poet insisted on writing them. Which might mean two books in two years or two books in fifty — and very few commissions.

    I also like the idea of a poet who goes on a poetry diet, ie forbids herself to write any poems whatsoever for a set period of time. Not as long as ten years, probably, but up to a year. It’s a kind of tactical opposite to NatPoWriMo. Then, if it proves impossible not to write a poem (like a cream bun that CANNOT be resisted without physical pain), I’m interested to see what emerges…

    (Although poets are often accused of ‘churning out’ collections when they publish frequently, I suspect they themselves would not describe their activity using this metaphor.)

  2. It’s a question of getting the balance right. Some poets move so far forward they fall off the edge, but it’s no fun to read poetry if it doesn’t move forward at all.

  3. I think ten years is a long break, I couldn’t have lasted that long without writing a poem myself, so hats off to Charles for managing that! 🙂
    But it is critical for all writers and creative people to move on, partly because we should be seeking to improve our skills, and partly because standing still leads to boredom for both the creative person and the audience.
    My own transition has taken at least two decades to accomplish: it’s only in the last two years that I started to feel that my writing has reached a level that is worthy of even trying to interest an audience in. For someone of Charles’s standing, I totally understand why he must himself feel that his work is good enough to put before others.
    That said, I also agree that we may not be our best critics, so at some point you do have to start letting other people judge your work, even if you are not totally convinced it is good enough.

  4. Helena Nelson says:
    “I want the sense that the poet couldn’t possibly help herself from writing whatever it is.”

    Yes, I totally agree. An outpouring of words that was and were irresistible. 🙂

  5. I think it’s interesting how, given the close relationship between poetry and music, many more musicians make that adventurous move forward than poets. Which poets can you think of who do continually surprise in new collections?

  6. I find poets are like rock bands; I generally love their early work (first collections/albums etc) then gradually go off them the more commercial they become 🙂

    But there always are exceptions…

  7. I find poets are like rock bands; I generally love their early work (first collections/albums etc) then gradually go off them the more commercial they become 🙂

    But there are always exceptions…

  8. Personally I follow the “spirit bloweth where it listeth” tradition. I can’t bear the idea of repeating myself even once. I have to be (to use that unfashionable word) inspired, in the grip of a quest of some sort. Better to produce nothing for years than repeat a worn out formula.

    But I’m also very much in favour of self-discipline. ‘Write something every day without fail’ is a great precept that stops you judging your output, which is essential in the early stages of a work. As William Stafford says, ‘if you don’t welcome your bad ideas, maybe the good ideas will stay away on principle.’

  9. Sarah, I agree about musicians (and I am one, a guitarist). That I’ve been playing for 35 years and although I’ve evolved, I still return to my Blues roots. But being a guitarist is a hobby for me: writing is far and away the main creative focus in my life.

    One of the differences I find between my main creative drive of writing and being a musician is transience of music. If you listen to a CD repeatedly, you can focus on the music and dissect it. But live, it’s gone in a moment, therefore I find it easy to keep going back to what I’ve done before, although I do try to re-invent it.

    But writing is entirely personal: I write mainly for me, so I try to be as free and as inventive as I can be within my own self-imposed limitations. But I do not want to be writing the same thing or in the same style forever: I have to change or stagnate to death.

    Artists such as Bowie continually evolve, though we might not like where he’s going, it’s very important for him to evolve. So he can and does surprise (and sometimes shock) us. But Pink Floyd for example, haven’t changed much in decades. For me they haven’t done anything different since the Wall, which is one of my top albums of ever. But since then it’s all be fairly formulaic, no matter how good it is. Personally, that lack of evolution would drive me mad. (And yes, I do think they are one of the best bands ever!)

  10. I don’t follow any bands closely so I may be talking nonsense, but I don’t really believe this idea that poets are less adventurous about moving forward. Jane Draycott, Jo Shapcott and Derek Mahon, say, all have really strong, instantly recognisable and unmistakeable voices but their voices and techniques are all continually changing and developing too, with major shifts between collections. Even Longley, who has said that he thinks of all his poems as in a sense parts of four long poems he’s been writing all his life and whose style has changed less conspicuously than the styles of the others since Gorse Fires does still write very differently and with different focuses in his different books.

  11. I can say that without a doubt it’s disheartening to pick up a new collection by a favourite poet and find that the poems could happily slot into any of their other collections.

    But I’m not sure that this is tied to a need for stylistic development. If a poet treats each collection as a coherent structure, with its own unique character, rather than as a neat round-up of their last few years’ work, then I don’t see why they can’t churn out book after book in the same style.

    Can I balk at the rock star comparisons and replace it with film directors? A director might only have a small range of tricks in his arsenal, and may return to the same themes again and again, but it’s usually worth going to see their new film (if they’re a *good* director!) because a new film is a whole new story. Musicians are so heavily reliant on style that it’s pretty much all they can change, but a poet can, I think, be more like a director.

  12. If I like the poet, I don’t mind – they can stay the same or move on, they’ll still be the poet I like in essence. Louise Gluck has been lamenting mortality for decades and I’ll happily go on buying her if she does it for another decade. But I know where Boyle is coming from, because I think any poet who has been writing a while gets harder to satisfy with his/her own work. I write less than I did, because I no longer think there must be a poem in every trivial event, and I keep less, because these days it’s got to be better than all right to make me think it worth going on with. It isn’t enough to be writing a poem and think “well it’s not bad, editor Z will probably accept it” ; it’s got to feel special from the off or it goes in the bin.

  13. I like my favourite poets to surprise themselves – or to be surprised, by a poem that insists (as Helena says) on being written. Then they’ll surprise me.

    Someone mentioned Jo Shapcott: surely she was surprised by ‘Piss Flower’, and many other poems in Of Mutability. She’s quoted in The Guardian as having said, on her illness and writing that book: “I’ve had to carry out reconstruction on my brain.. I’ve had to remake myself as a poet.”

    As for not publishing often, maybe it adds something for the reader… an edge of hunger? Several of my favourites – Marie Howe, John Glenday, Jo Shapcott again – had a gap of ten or more years before their most recent book. Not sure about correlation with quality, as everyone’s practice is so different.

    I admire Charles Boyle’s rigour. What an example! Also, it’s heartening that prose at least is working for him: “prose is leading me astray, which is as it should be”.

  14. I like to surprise myself in poems. It’s part of the evolution and development of my writing, and if I don’t extend myself – even sometimes shocking myself with the outcomes – I don’t feel true to myself, and to readers.

  15. I’ve read and read–historical surveys–over decades. Now I read only contemporary work. I tire easily of those who, in their effort to surprise, anchor their work in the flashy filigree without giving attention to a poem’s having humane or humanistic meaning. Why Read Poems can be answered by “approaching new styles” and by “learning living and dying.” I want both spectra. The flashy poems (poets) interested mainly in titillation of the senses through all of the poetic techniques and typography who don’t have anything much to say besides “Look how clever I am” have failed. And will fail forevermore.

  16. As individuals we all have themes and certain imagery we’re drawn to, both as readers and writers. I think what helps to establish a feel of a writer’s style or personality is this repetition of theme, those little obsessions. So it’s expected that writers will return to the same territory, but the vehicles these ideas travel in should always be fresh. I like the idea of a writer deconstructing themselves – building up their empire then tearing it down, starting all over again, always pushing for new ground. It’s far more interesting if a writer can spill out those multiple personalities and take readers by surprise.

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