I’ve never forgotten that ‘talk’;
What now (5 years…)?
You said, and it was the first thing you said to me that week:
I heard the click of the hang-up;
the low boom of a mic-drop (cliché);
But no smugness; you were serious in the open corridor of the sixth-form second floor.
I think someone came bustling passed,
awkwardly stumbling through double doors
as I remarked (perhaps) you should find another friend, then.
It was absurd, the way you
wanted (half-heartedly) to ‘work things out’.
Since then (thankfully)
My arrogance has gone (?)
My confidence cast away (not so thankfully).
But at least there were no more odes, To Autumn’s Winter
and other bullshit (?)
That ‘sacred meter and meaning’,
of copies of Keats and
attempts to understand Auden;
‘Imbue my words, sanctity divine,
nuance, polished, a priori.’
Fuck the muses, and Fuck you.
When I was 17, my concept of poetry was narrow, to put it kindly. I had no concept of poetry outside of what I had been taught at school: Keats, Shelly, Byron, Browning, Blake. I remember very clearly hating Keats when I studied La Belle Dame Sans Merci and The Eve of St. Agnes. Lamia was the last straw. I resigned myself to hating this moping young romanticist for the rest of my life.
But it didn’t stop me attempting to reproduce his generation’s style, something I frequently do when writing, both poetry and prose.
I was a member of the high school creative writing society chaired by our one of our literature teachers. She was, to my memory, bitter and sarcastic, and most importantly, not a very good teacher. With hindsight, I was perhaps a little too harsh. After all, she had to read my poetry that year.
During one of these meetings, I brought a poem and read it aloud. It was called: Ode to Autumn’s Winter. I need not recite it (my pride is hurt enough just remembering it), and will at least take the words to state the obvious: it was shite.
It was awful because, for me as a writer today, it managed combine (almost perfectly) all the detestable features of Romantic poetry; to me, a vain insistence on the artistic ‘grasp on beauty’ that borders on fanatic zeal; an indignant rejection of scientistic enlightenment ideas; and the narrowing of a poem’s scope to beauty, and beauty alone, produced according to equally narrow perceptions of literary aesthetic.
My poem was meaningless; it devoted itself to preaching about the beauty of the end of autumn and nothing else, and most fundamentally, it could not even do that which romantic poets triumphed in: fashioning beautiful poetry. My poem was neither sophisticated, nor beautiful. It was awful.
But if I did not learn by trial and error, I would always write garbage; and if I was always afraid of writing garbage, I’d never write anything.
At that meeting, besides receiving well-meant but meaningless compliments on its aesthetic, my teacher seized upon the specifics: it’s inherent contradictions, its wonky metre, and its shoe-horned rhyme. I knew she wanted to say it was awful, but I was crestfallen because I had worked hours on it. I took the defensive, reiterating that it was an experiment. I was naive, and completely out of my depth. But from all this, I learned some very important lessons.
I learnt that I was, and always had been, bad at poetry, primarily because I had been a bad reader of poetry. At the time, I resolved to stick to prose instead, but later I developed a more sympathetic view on Romantic poetry, one that I contextualised within the proliferation of a cold, much too self-assured empirical revolution (the likes of Kant, Hume, Bentham and Mill) that had yet to have its confidence knocked (disclaimer: I am very much an admirer of utilitarian philosophy and recognise humanity’s debt to pioneers during the ‘age of enlightenment’, but this doesn’t mean they are above reproach, folks).
I also learned that people are not mind-readers. They form opinions, and they must do so by observation. People read people, and if we are all books, we can only be identified by our writing. Make sure, when writing, you consider each and every letter. But also remember to read carefully, to spot the mistakes, to see passed the ink and guess at intent.