I’ve always been drawn to this statement by the Irish poet Michael Longley: “The poet makes the most complex and concentrated response that can be made with words to the total experience of living. For these reasons I would go on trying to write poems even if no one wanted to read them.” I find this a very enabling comment and one that cuts through the frustrations that beset any poet who begins to dwell on the vast absence of poetry readers. It also harks back to the statement Keats made about poetry, that it is essentially about “soul-making”. Keats said this: “I find that I cannot exist without poetry – without eternal poetry – half the day will not do – the whole of it – … I had become all in a Tremble for not having written anything of late – the Sonnet ‘On the Sea’ did me some good. I slept better last night for it – this Morning, however, I am nearly as bad again.” You can sense that Keats, like Longley, would without a doubt “go on trying to write poems even if no one wanted to read them.”
I think this question of whether or not you would still want to write even if no one wanted to read your poems is an important question for a poet to ask themselves at different times in their writing life. It is all too easy to lose sight of why you began writing and to get caught up with ideas about professional success. I am not saying that poets should not be professional or ambitious about what they do, or that they should not publish or cultivate an audience for their work, but I am saying that what should be primary is the writing process itself, as Longley says, making that complex and concentrated response in words to the experience of living. There is an immense qualitative difference between writing in order to become a good writer, and writing to gain recognition. Here is some of what Rilke says about poetry writing, and you can see how much “soul-making” is required in his “to do” list:
In order to write a single poem, one must see many cities, and people, and things; one must get to know animals and the flight of birds, and the gestures that flowers make when they open to the morning. One must be able to return to roads in unknown regions….to days spent in rooms withdrawn and quiet and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to oceans, to nights of travel that rushed along loftily and flew with all the stars….. one must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in a room with open windows and with fitful noises. And still, it is not yet enough, to have memories. One must be able to forget them when they are many, and one must have the immense patience to wait till they are come again.
To write solely for recognition or for careerist reasons is fraught and difficult because there can only ever be a limited amount of available imaginative space in the public mind. We know that our culture is far more willing to give most of its imaginative space to its sports people and film stars than to writers, and especially not to poets. There is just not enough recognition-space to go round, even for those who do truly deserve it. Every just claim cannot be met. Adam Kirsch in his essay “The Fight for Recognition” published in the November 2009 issue of Poetry says: “The amount of recognition available in the world in inexorably shrinking since each passing generation leaves behind more writers with a claim on our memory. That is why the fight for recognition is so fierce and so personal.” If you don’t have a passion for the writing of poetry, if it has become merely your profession, then you won’t know it as a process of discovery, revealing inherent music. You won’t know it as a process that propels the evolution of consciousness towards wholeness, or as a knowing and as a touching.
Poetry’s heightened seeing and hearing that result from paying attention to the world brings about the discovery and revelation of form, this is the knowledge that Keats knew of and why he couldn’t live without his daily dose of poetry. This is the pleasure and the power that Michael Longley has experienced when he says he “would go on trying to write poems even if no one wanted to read them.”
Poets have lamented the scarcity of readers throughout time. The ancient Greek poet Callimachus and the Roman poet Horace both proclaimed their contempt for the vulgar crowd that did not appreciate their fine words: “I hate the mob” they both announced. Some poets have tried to solve the problem of lack of audience by writing for a single ideal reader, or for a small group of sympathetic readers. One very important value of poetry is its high seriousness, there is a high respect for the intended audience of poetry. The best serious poetry expects that its readers will be, as the American poet James Wright so deftly put it, “intelligent readers of goodwill”. The popular arts do not usually hold such respectful expectations, they can’t afford to because such expectations must be met with great care and painstaking time must be spent in composition and it is the nature of popular arts to be shallow and ephemeral. .
What every poet wants I suppose are readers who are not necessarily other poets, who are not critics, who are not scholars, who are not dabblers, but people who are able to immerse themselves in reading so earnestly, so longingly that their experience of books is one of the best parts of their experience of life. I’m sure that any writer worth their salt would prefer a small quantity of quality readers, rather than a large quantity of insincere readers who simply indulge in the hypocrisy of vicarious experience and thus reduce the work to the concept of mere words, ultimately a frivolity, an irrelevance. I’ll end this post on a poem called “Poetry” by Venezuelan poet, Eugenio Montejo. It’s from his selected poems, The Trees, translated by Peter Boyle.
Poetry crosses the earth alone,
takes its voice from the suffering of the world
and asks for nothing —
not even words.
Arriving from a great distance at any hour,
it gives no warning.
It holds the key to the door,
As it enters it stops to gaze about at us.
Later it will open its hand and give us
a flower or a pebble, something secret
but so intense the heart beats
too fast. And we wake.