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The delicate business of writing poetry

26 February 2022

9:00 AM

26 February 2022

9:00 AM

Living, as Clive James put it, under a life sentence, and having refused chemotherapy, I find I respond to the time issue in contradictory ways. On the one hand, I read avidly, almost as if I’ll be tested at some later date. I am morbidly well-informed on current affairs, the status of the old white male and the situation in Ukraine. I crawl through Lucretius and Horace in search of wisdom. On the other hand, I avoid my favourite filmic masterworks (Chinatown, On the Waterfront, The Remains of the Day, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning) in favour of Secret Army, The Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatreand any 1950s thriller that features frequent chases to some Tudoresque Surrey cottage. In other words, everything that is unreal, out of reach, leaving no trace and comfortably mediocre.

My diagnosis was preceded by a decline in my ability first to eat, then eat or drink. Entering the wards for the first time in 30 years was a shock. This was not going to be a restful experience. There was no sense of reserve or reticence in the nursing and auxiliary staff, who announced their views and exchanged gossip without restraint. Which is not to say there was not plentiful evidence of devotion and good-heartedness in trying circumstances. I yearned for a room of my own, though conceding that for some patients, constant noise and interruption was almost welcome. I was the silent enigma in the corner bed. When I was eventually moved to a room of my own, it was (unknown to me) because they had given up on me. I do recall thinking that since I must be dead, the afterlife must exist in the form of visiting hallucinations (wife, sons and daughter).

For one with aspirations to be a maker of short first-person lyrics, subject matter is always a delicate business. When life itself is drama, it can be a matter of too much of a good thing. I disapprove of the poet intruding into other lives. The best life for a poet is probably one that is uneventful and allows for plenty of daydreaming and make-believe. So what to do with such material? I don’t have an answer. The problem has to be addressed in the writing. Apart from anything else, so little of one’s life gets into poems — a view expressed by Ted Hughes at a poetry event in Kendal in the 1970s. I remember being surprised. Why had I not understood this before?


One drawback of my illness is that I’ve been unable to go out for short drives in the countryside. It’s been a daily occurrence since early retirement in the late 1990s. Now my moribund little Hyundai stands battery-dead and flat of tyre. After a failed attempt to contact a garage that would sort the problem, I gave up. My horse, so to speak, was dying too. But unlike a horse, most sensitive of creatures, it registered nothing. A horse-riding friend told me the other day that, due to a spell of deafness, he was unable to work out what was behind him on his morning rides. By the movement of the horse’s ears, he was convinced the creature had understood the predicament and was extra alert.

I have been moved by Nina Power’s new book What Do Men Want? She searches for a more rounded take on the battle of the sexes. The remarkable enthusiasm of the Establishment for self-abasement means these issues matter. As a grandfather I have no doubt it is for the young to resolve these conflicts and misunderstandings. But Power strikes a warning note which all of us could heed: that the modern victory over the father has driven the egalitarian ethos into the arms of a sibling rivalry of everyone against everyone else, which has less and less knowledge or respect for the past. Good news, as Power remarks, for a niche capitalism of more rigid identities, but bad news for the cultural conservative.

Indoors and out of doors has become part of our re-negotiation with day-to-day life. You don’t need to be critically ill to have felt the allure of the undisturbed and the threat of ‘outside’. Bored teenagers, the old, the Covid isolated as well as the infirm find what solutions there are, whether it is the soothing futility of TV sport, with its last-minute ‘rescues’ and ‘triumphs’, or politics as a spectator — Spectator? — phenomenon. ‘At the time of writing’ has a fresh resonance almost hourly, though some habits, alas, remain ingrained, for example the Hypocrite’s Denunciation Syndrome — or Sir John Major Syndrome. Is there no limit to his lack of self-awareness?

The antidote to ‘at the time of writing’ must be poetry at its best. Recently I have dreamt of inundations of various kinds and can find no better example of the prismatic nature of the poem, for which, sooner or later, there will always be a time and a place. These are the opening lines of Matthew Hollis’s fine poem ‘The Wash’: ‘All summer the rainfall was biblical./ Seawater, nightly, brought gifts to our door/ crab claws and hawser, a boat on the high street,/ roads leading into the sea.’

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