A couple of years ago the poet Christopher James wrote a thought-provoking blog which asked the question: Can poets retire?
I thought about this again this week when I discovered a friend of many years has stopped writing. It appears to be a permanent choice.
I suppose the level of surprise was a result of my assumption that he would write for the whole of his life. I have never known him not to write, or at least try to. Of course, there have been short breaks when domestic or professional commitments have taken over, but these were irrelevant. We both knew he would write again shortly, and might come back to it fresher for the interruption. He also happened to be very good at it, which perhaps has enhanced my sense of loss now.
Now, though, it seems, he has closed the notebook for the last time, stopped the habit of scribbling some idea or line on the back of a shop receipt, cut away the hours of wrestling with a poem until finally he has thrown his head back with an almost delirious laugh, knowing he’s got down something that works.
Why? I don’t know. I have asked but have had no reply. It’s too easy to paraphrase Louis Armstrong and say Poets don’t retire, they stop when there are no more poems in them.
I have said several times on here that writing is what I do in order to untangle the world as best I can. It helps me make sense of living. And, hopefully, those who read what I write, find something that resonates, something that reaches them.
If I didn’t do that, would writing be replaced by something else? Or would it be a case of not bothering to attempt to untangle it or make sense of it? Would a different kind of meditation descend, a different stillness, the emptiness that some who prefer mysticism seek? It’s possible. Do I really need to communicate?
Perhaps that’s it. That, for whatever reason, my friend feels no further need to communicate.
It would be stupid to associate stopping writing with stopping living, or in some way giving up. It may be simply a moving away from a previous way of life, a moving into something new, which will bring its own energy.
Some, as we know, write to the end, or as near it as makes no difference. Charles Bukowski left it very late in his life to write what I think is one of his finest poems, called so now? where he records what it feels like when you know the end won’t be long. it’s a lousy fix/ but the tree outside doesn’t know:/ I watch it moving with the wind/ in the late afternoon sun.// there’s nothing to declare here,/just a waiting…
Of course, nobody knows how it will be, but I feel I will also write to the last, or for as long as my mind works with any kind of coherence. I think it would be annoying to have to stop.
For so many years I threw away almost all of what I wrote. Somehow it always felt I was in some kind of preliminary experience, a time of practice, where although the writing may have some temporary value, it was still the work of a novice. I think writing for newspapers encouraged the attitude because, unless you took the time to seek out an archive, each day’s writing was quickly replaced by the next day’s efforts. I wrote what I felt were disposable poems. I ran out of patience with them quickly, was (still am to some extent) ruthless with failures. And if I tired of a poem, then I considered it a failure.
Maybe the arrival of the internet changed me as a writer. It has altered my methods. Certainly, as quickly as I have always written, I write even quicker now because of the facility to edit your sentences as you go. How much of that ‘white paint’ eraser did I get through thirty or forty years ago?! I remember the writing and re-writing, or typing and re-typing, of poems taking an age.
Perhaps also it’s the advance of my own years that has brought a sense of urgency, which has also been reflected in the speed at which I get things down. I see the value of abandoned poems more than I ever did as a younger writer. I write with more freedom, I feel no need to be informed, in some way moulded or constrained by what others have done, or what has gone before.
And, of course, the internet has encouraged a sense that writing can be more permanent. Archives are more easily explored. You don’t need to have your poems in a book if you don’t want to. You can communicate with a wider audience by just writing poems on a blog.
Back to my friend. I remember once, long ago, asking him what would happen to his poems if he died. These were in the days when we all kept our stuff in ring-binders. He reacted as if he could not contemplate the idea that somebody would just chuck them out.
I think, in my case at least, as elusive as my narrators are, if anyone in the future, family or otherwise, wanted to see what I was like, my poetry would be the key. Forget the rest of it, the stuff written for money, the biographies, the novel, the newspaper pieces written to the best of my limited ability to a deadline. There are no keys there. It was a similar craft but it was work. It had a practical hold over me, but not a psychological one.
It’s the poetry that holds the key.
Maybe that’s it. Maybe poets are trying to tell the world, those in the future who read their poems, who they really are. Maybe, in spite of being anti-social in the general world, and not appearing to need attention, we’re all saying, here you are, look at this, get to know me, I have something important to say!
A bit depressing, but perhaps that’s all it is. Just another way of screaming Me, Me, Me!!’
And perhaps that’s why my friend has stopped. He, not only feels no further need to communicate, he just doesn’t need the attention any more.
Which in itself is perhaps a kind of achievement.
Today, though, I’ll read his poems again and be grateful, not only for them, but for the fact that at that point in his life he felt the need to write them.