Is it possible to retire from poetry?
Is it possible to retire from poetry? Not in the sense of having made enough money from it to retreat to a cottage in Cornwall, because that would be absurd. They used to say only three people made money from poetry: Heaney, Harrison and Hughes. No, I mean in the sense of hanging up your poetic boxing gloves and stepping out of the ring without so much as a glance back at the blood on the canvas.
After all, it happens all the time in the world of sport and the arts. Is there a poetic equivalent of the former ballet dancer with a television career and a work-out video? Not that I can think of. In truth, there are few gigs for the retired poet. Not much in the way of punditry, and memoirs have a niche audience. Of course there is always teaching and criticism but this is usually small beer. And younger poets might take a dim view of a creative writing teacher who is no longer producing the goods. No, most poets stumble ever onwards with a slim collection every few years, often with diminishing returns, as they put further distance between the moment they burst onto the scene as the enfant terrible bearing a clutch of dazzling poems.
Is it a poet’s duty to go on until they can no longer raise the lid of a laptop? There is no shortage of poets who continued to write at the top of their game, and many arguably got better, including Heaney, Walcott and notably, Clive James. Others re-tread old ground or circle in a sort of holding position, reliably producing the same book over and over. Some, you feel have had their moment in the sun.
I’m a typical poet in mid-career, with some early glory (Bridport, 2002) a big win (National Poetry Competition, 2008) and some later success (Oxford Brooks, 2016). But in between there have been plenty of fallow years, quite a few read-to-three-people appearances (including one best-forgotten grey Sunday in Loughborough) and at present I’m starting to feel something akin to poetic fatigue – not writer’s block exactly, just a lack of enthusiasm to enter this year’s round of competitions, work towards another collection or send out to magazines.
It all feels eerily familiar. Then I remembered an encounter with a poet while I was an bright-eyed undergraduate at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He was a softly spoken, bearded fellow called George, who wrote lyrical nature poetry with a luminous edge, set against the desolate landscapes of Northumbria. He had been published in plenty of reputable magazines, had a good local reputation and a well-reviewed collection behind him. I was sent along by my poetry editor, Ben Rice, (later, author of the virtuoso novella Pobby and Dingan) to snaffle a poem for the university magazine, pigeonhole (no capital letter, of course).
Duly, I bowled up outside the Lit and Phil Society on the Westgate Road, cherry-cheeked from the numbing Tyneside winter. I listened attentively, then, heart pounding, hectored the poet for a poem. Without hesitation he handed over a sheaf of papers and said: ‘Take your pick.’ He astonished me further by telling me he was ‘retiring from poetry.’
I didn’t think such a thing was possible, and even now, I am not entirely certain that it is. He was around the same age I am today (42) and to my eighteen-year-old self it seemed an absurd waste of talent. When I asked him his reasons, he was hesitant in his reply. Clearly he didn’t want to put off a young Turk like me from making his way in poetry, but eventually he gave this explanation: ‘Too many poems in the world, too much disappointment, too little reward and too much else to do.’
Elaborating, he told me he wanted to make the transition back from writer to reader. I’m paraphrasing now, but he said he could never entirely enjoy other people’s work without the nagging sense that he was either in some sort of competition with them (even if they had died a thousand years ago) or that he was in some sense neglecting his own duty to write. When I asked him his plans, he simply shrugged: ‘Just to go back to a normal life I suppose. Read. Go for walks. Go to cinema. Spend time with the family.’
Back to a normal life! Who wanted that? That way, only obscurity and banality lay. They sounded like the words of defeated man. Yet he did not seem bitter in the least. In fact, as he handed over his tattered A4 pages, he had a certain serenity about him. He asked about my own writing and wished me luck with it. He was looking down the other lens of the telescope. I asked for his address to send on his author’s copy, but he shook his head and smiled. ‘No need.’ This was no melodramatic Ziggy Stardust-esque exit from the stage. This was measured, considered retirement.
At the time, of course, I couldn’t relate at all. After all, what could be more important than getting into print and elbowing your way into the literary world? We were being taught by (and liked to think we were hanging out with) Sean O’Brien, W.N. Herbert and Desmond Graham. One of the Merseybeat poets had ventured up the year before, drunk a bottle of wine and snogged a student in the back of a taxi. To me, these figures represented everything I wanted to be – published, feted, and making a living from the written word.
Naturally, I wore the same kind of long navy blue ‘cousin coat’ that O’Brien made famous in his poem of the same name. It had practical as well as poetic qualities, being the only defence against the biting Geordie winter. My abiding memory of the year was trudging in my trench coat and polar neck across the town moor to Castle Leazes, the decidedly unpoetic brick halls of residence where I composed my early efforts.
I put the encounter out of my mind and continued to haunt the poetry scene – watching Brendan Cleary blaze away in the pubs (one part Ed Byrne, one part Lord Byron) touting The Irish Card, his first collection for Bloodaxe. For an ill-fated, disorganised spell, I even took over the helm of the student poetry magazine alongside musician and fellow poet, Darren Giddings. He was a mature student in circumstances as impecunious as my own, with holes in his shoes and an M&S credit card that kept him in frozen lasagne and reasonable Cabernet Sauvignon. He had already found his poetic voice not to mention put out a proper single, and was someone else to look up to as well as sink pints with at the Trent House. In the same year, 1993, I would watch, slightly star-struck, as the white bearded Jon Silken, legendary editor of Stand, ghosted out of the Robinson Library with a pile of books under his arm.
I embarked on my poetry career in earnest, inveigling my way onto the Creative Writing MA at UEA to be taught by future laureate Andrew Motion, who would murmur a ‘well said’ with quiet intensity whenever we produced a promising phrase. There were other encounters: Hugo Williams, dashing, and always mildly provocative, who read stylish, faintly erotic poems about nurses. Childishly, we boycotted one of his sessions after he criticised a fellow poet’s work, saying that he ‘thought the metaphor had died with Eliot’ (referring presumably to the evening spread out against the sky, ‘like a patient etherized upon a table.’) I was later the grateful recipient of an Eric Gregory Award, handed to me by novelist Ian McEwan, who advised us not to allow the cash disappears down the tills at the supermarket, but instead to buy something that would nourish the soul, like a Picasso sketch. I spent it on a new washing machine.
But now, this meeting with the mild mannered, northern poet has come back to haunt me. Was there something in George’s decision that makes a terrible sort of sense? Perhaps there comes a time when you have written all the poems you are supposed to write. Maybe you arrive at a moment when you realise you best stuff is behind you and that there has been a falling off in quality? And think of the benefits. Imagine not having to worry about where the next idea for a poem is coming from? Imagine not having to stuff money into PayPal for all those speculative competition entries.
Another sobering moment came when old mucker, Darren, sent me a thick manuscript of his poems, stating that they were otherwise destined for the waste paper basket. Having previously given up poetry in a spell of disillusionment, this time he had packed it in for good like a 20 a day Marlborough habit but again without anger or regret, simply acknowledging that he did not have the time or inclination to continue. A box of back issues of Poetry Review followed in the post. These in turn were followed by a bundle of once coveted poetry collections with the message that he had kept the ones he liked and no longer had the space or time to devote to these. It was a typical act of generosity, but at the back of my mind I also felt there was some small betrayal of his gift and calling. But who am I to judge?
I spent 2017 pursuing poetry with a reasonable level of success – a few inspired moments producing a handful poems worth keeping and some placing in good competitions. I was longlisted for the National Poetry Competition 2016 (always announced a year late) and shortlisted for both the Wells and Winchester competitions. Still easily lured at the prospect of success, I motored down the M4 and sat in the audience listening to other people’s names being read out, returning home without a cheque or travel expenses to show for my trouble. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the readings. Meeting up with the other poets and talking a bit of poetry shop brings its own rewards, and any fool can tell you that poetry is generally an unprofitable and somewhat trying business.
I have produced five collections, including Farewell to the Earth (Arc, 2011) and The Fool (Templar, 2014) and have been included twice in The Forward Book of Poetry (always next to Clive James, to my delight). But it was my last book, The Penguin Diaries (Templar, 2017) that really took its toll.
I set myself the onerous challenge of producing a sonnet for every member of Captain Scott’s final expedition to the Antarctic. Despite a memorable launch at Keats House in Hampstead last January, it gained just a single review and has disappeared like Captain Oates himself in the blizzard of new poetry. I genuinely felt it was among the best work I had done. Again, I say this without a trace of bitterness – it is incumbent on the poet to market their own work. I didn’t spend enough time sending out individual poems to magazines or books out for review. I was too busy at the day job, or rattling away on other writing projects (a play about John Betjeman and a Sherlock Holmes pastiche). But thinking about the hours that went into it, it is impossible not feel the disappointment – and at least the small temptation to throw in the proverbial towel.
But of course I haven’t. I got an idea for another poem and wrote it. I visited the Seamus Heaney museum, HomePlace, the stunning, honey-wood shrine to the great man in Bellaghy with his effortless assonance printed a foot high on the walls. I’ve sent out to another rash of competitions and will wait like the other ten thousand hopefuls for the announcement of the winner of the National Poetry Competition, hoping that lightening might just strike twice, as it did for Jo Shapcott and Ian Duhig.
Indeed I wonder whether twenty years’-retired George was tempted to swap the carriage clock for a MacBook Air; whether he succumbed to the temptation to write again, and enter? Can you really turn your back on something like poetry, that intoxicating madness in which, ‘inspiring frenzy, awakens lyric?’ (Plato).