I gave up writing poetry in spring. It wasn’t sudden.
It was a festival that tipped me over the edge. I was invited to read at a banquet-style poetry event where twelve poets sat at a table on stage, the thirteenth, our presenter, nestled in the middle. To add to the Last Supper references, the atmosphere was heavily ritualised and ornamented. Lights were dim. Non-specific religious statuary held down a red rug between our table and the audience. There may have been candles.
The presenter was nervous and emotional. Backstage, he’d arrived breathless, dropped his pants in front of us to change and, a minute later, told us he had never organised anything like this before, and therefore needed a hug. We ran out of wine pretty quickly. Jokes were made on stage about the alcoholic nature of poets. It was part of our specialness, the creation of poetry one aspect of a larger flaw. The religiosity didn’t end with culturally appropriated statuary. It soon became clear that our presenter was on a quest to fill the poor vacated souls of the audience with poetry. To save them, to save us, and thus to save poetry itself.
I wanted to bolt into the wilderness. Alas, I was second-last on the bill, and we were all seated on stage for the duration, so I had a lot of time to think about why I was so uncomfortable. It wasn’t the other poets—I quite enjoyed listening to them read. It was the framing of it all, the parameters being drawn around poetry. Or maybe it was the public display of need.
When my turn finally came, I read something I’d written in China:
to whom it may concern,
my whole sharp crink-stone heart thanks you for this precious opportunity
but please do not appoint me guardian of your heavenly peach garden.
dangling from prehensile temptation, quivered by itches, this is no position
from which to contemplate the honour of overseeing the peach garden.
it is not that i am not up to the job, on the contrary, but there is in all honesty
in the tending of a peach garden a certain error of heavenly thought
to which i did not wish to draw your attention, being humble myself,
although it has been alleged that i am on a par with heaven’s intelligence
alleged in several quarters, honestly all right-thinking quarters,
that i am a greater animal than all of you fuzz-arsed fruits
so in my righteous genius i must point out (dear golden beings)
that your so-called heaven grants us no insurance against desire
such that even lao tzu cackles with longevitous greed, and pulls his corpse,
and the fat buddha’s smiles derive slyly from a bestial satiety
we all know that guts aren’t the answer to enlightened appetites
you heavenly peach-belchers, hypocritical self-picked emperors
encircled by a people who should have let you drop and rot
but pruned your branches, lined orchards with their own blood-bunting
sliced off juicy cheeks to fill your gap mouths and sugar them
and set alight their own children to play your red tune of growth.
like china i am hungry, too hungry for hairy profundity
so in the interest of heaven’s betterment, please find a better candidate,
and my resignation enclosed. yours sincerely,
Monkey King, great sage, equal of heaven
It was appropriate to be reading a letter of resignation.
Having escaped from the Last Supper without lasting stigmata, I sat in my hotel room and examined my soul, which ought to be a poet’s favourite pastime. There was clearly something missing in my relationship with poetry. I had not simply lost hold of it, as happens from time to time; I was disgusted with it. Surely I had once felt the required reverence, surely on some level I still did feel it, otherwise, why write at all?
Not for the first time, it occurred to me that poetry was just a sophisticated form of humiliation (on second thought, scratch sophisticated). I wondered why we expect poets to purge the raw feelings of their inner lives. What was it about the confessional mode into which we were being coralled that was so terrible? I sensed there was some deep masochism being demanded of me that I had not consented to. It was weird.
It wasn’t a new feeling. I was raised Catholic, and taken to various churches until I was about thirteen and able to articulate my own apostasy convincingly. These weekly rituals of blood-drinking and sacrifice wore a groove into my narrative repertoire. The experience eventually instilled in me a deep distrust of ritual mystification. Men in cassocks clanging censers and humming their words have a ticklish effect. I soon reverted to the stronger of my Irish ancestral traits: irreverence.
When I began to write, it was poetry I wrote. Poetry was a strong part of my early identity as a writer, and I tried to live up to the identity; I mooched in cafés, I stared intensely at notebooks, I drank. But it didn’t really work for me. That persona has always been ill-fitting. All those feelings seemed to be missing the point. Poetry can carry intensity of feeling, but it is not the same thing as intensity of feeling. Probably most teenagers realise this earlier than I did, and simply stop writing.
During the Last Supper, I realised I had been in crisis about poetry for some time. I did not belong to it, I struggled to fit myself into its social form. There was nothing wrong with the work at this event, or with much of what I heard and read and was exposed to. The poetry itself was not the problem. Something else was going on, something I couldn’t put my finger on.
That night I made a rash vow: I would quit poetry for an entire year. I wouldn’t just stop accepting poetry gigs, I would stop writing it until I figured out why it had become so embarrassing. Call it an experiment, call it a protest or a test of courage or a sad little tantrum. After twenty years, and for twelve months, I was quitting poetry.
The embarrassment of being a poet is common to many poets and quite possibly the reason more people don’t admit to writing the stuff. In part it embarrasses us because it’s an indulgence. It is not a job; it has no function, though that can be said of many professions. In Australia in particular, we have a social bias against exposing ourselves, one that makes us suspicious of poets. Our favourite poets are social commentators such as Henry Lawson, or humorists such as C.J. Dennis. But we also have a fondness for communion, a stillness in us; it hits us in the bush, mostly. We know about being stunned. We love Judith Wright and Les Murray too.
So if that embarrassment is partly about being repressed, then setting poets aside as creatures with a special ability to feel is part of a broader outsourcing of feeling socially—one of the traditional roles of theatre, story, song. But I accept that role as a novelist, and it doesn’t upset me. No, the disgust around poetry is something more than being embarrassed to feel.
For a while I thought it was about reading aloud. I remembered going to open-mic gigs in Sydney in my early twenties, when I didn’t know what kind of a writer I would be. I always wrote poetry; I come from a family that reads, that would rather read than talk. The writing of poetry was a private matter, something most people did but nobody discussed. The experience of trying to go public was terrifying and disappointing. I knew very quickly that I wasn’t going to be a performance poet, but I wanted acceptance for my work, too.
There is an element of fear of failure at work. When you share your writing, you make yourself vulnerable to ridicule. But the disgust, where does it come from? It isn’t in the writing. Maybe it’s in the performance of identity. A nausea in the discomfort of being an inauthentic character.
Reading aloud is now one of my great pleasures. I have always preferred print, though; it gives me somewhere to hide. I don’t think this is cowardly. I want to get out of the way of my writing. But I also like the public role of being a writer, someone who thinks carefully and out loud. Being a poet is different to being a writer, though. Poetry, even more than novel-writing, is a sickness.
We know how the combination of women, poetry and shame ends: in the river Ouse, with stones in your pockets, or taping closed the gap beneath the kitchen door and turning on the gas. I am not prepared to go the way of my predecessors.
Australian poetry, famously described by John Forbes as ‘a knife fight in a phone booth’ (a line quoted more often than any of his poems), comprises a small population. The official poets of the country are few and profess confusing ideologies. The competitiveness is as ridiculous as Forbes’ analogy suggests, though rather less personal.
Pointless ideological arguments about authenticity and style are a kind of gatekeeping. In that context, fear can infect the work: a fear of taking a step without being seen to be taking a stand.
At the same time there is a sanctification of poetry, where we put everyday life in one basket over here with the dirty washing and the office supplies, and poetry on this high shelf where it can be seen but not touched. As a poet the sanctification of poetry should please me, but it makes me miserable. I suspect it’s why most people hate it, because it’s so fucking removed from what we know and how we live.
But then, at a book reading in a rural South Australian library, someone sidles up to me and says, in a lowered voice, ‘Have you got any poetry?’ And I know that people also need it, particularly under strain. We need it at funerals and weddings and the birth of our children and when our hearts are broken by our lovers and when we fall in love again. Those are the times we suspect poetry of being necessary. Of holding everything together. We don’t know why. It’s a mystery.
To return to lessons I learned from the Catholics: where there are mysteries, there is charlatanism. The moments when we cut to the chase, when we go after the truth about living, are the exception. And the rest of the time we ritualise. It is like a kind of cargo cult: building up the conditions in which the sublime was experienced in the hope that the sublime will appear before us.
Although I’m an atheist, poetry’s long association with religiosity is not something I resist. Some of my favourite poets are mystics—Rumi, Blake, Lao Tzu. But that mystic feeling of communion is different to what happens socially to poetry. When poetry becomes a ritual and an institution, it can be removed from its core of communion—or communication. Mystification is used to obscure meaning. This process becomes a performance of doing poetry that is no longer about the poem. It is about denying access to the poem. This draws attention to the artifice and the fraud at work. It is unpleasant to be in such a performance when you write poetry as a way of trying to speak honestly about something there is no other way to speak about.
Is any poet ever not in crisis about poetry? Every time I have spoken to another poet about this essay—and it’s taken me a year to live and another eight months to write—they have told me about the time they gave up poetry: for a week, a year, or five years, or for life. At festivals and in journals, there’s always talk about how to get poetry out into the world, how to make people read it, invigorate the form, popularise it. This seems bizarre when it’s an activity that many of us are trying to quit.
I can accept that poetry is a niche activity. Not because poetry would be ruined if everybody wrote it, but because everybody does write it. Even if it’s only once, when they greet death or a broken heart. Even if it’s on a toilet door. It is what the mind does when meaning falls away.
And that means we don’t need to force it on people, spoonfeed them for their edification like some factory trip to the national gallery. Poetry isn’t a conduit for moral virtue, any more than any other art form. It’s a form of communication, just like a story or a painting or a love song. It’s supposed to mean different things to different people, but it’s supposed to mean something.
This is about class, of course. The charlatanism of poetry is elitist. Poetry is not just an activity for idle wealthy people. It belongs to everybody. And when we elevate it, when we try to build some artifice of reverence around it, it makes poetry seem inaccessible, reserved for certain individuals, as if a poet is a kind of eunuch.
The high shelf and the factory trip are two elements of the same behaviour, splitting poetry off from life. And part of my disgust is with that agenda. I don’t want to sit up there. I want to be down in the dirt where language lives.
The politics of being a working poet, more than any other kind of working writer, are strange. The urgency of work as production can be oppressive. In giving up poetry I am ceasing the manufacture of a certain kind of text. But I’m also losing something that is contrary to manufacturing.
Poetry is counterproductive. It’s inherently pointless, makes no promises, resists commodification. More than communicating something, it communicates about communication. It looks at the places where words split from meanings, it gets in the cracks of our culture and widens them.
Writing cannot be work, in the sense of production and sale of goods and services, unless you trick either writing or work into agreeing to forget the contradiction. As someone who makes my living from writing, I am constantly reminded of this, and constantly playing the trick. Maybe part of my crisis with poetry is a result of not being comfortable with selling it. That effort of living from grants to poverty, day jobs to freelance work: perhaps all that keeps me away from my inner voice. Maybe supporting myself financially brings with it a kind of unacknowledged creative despair: despair that those contradictions are bigger than I am.
Or maybe, since writing is my day job, it’s easier to dismiss poetry as an unviable activity. It’s a huge indulgence, they say, to write; I think that might be a dangerous lie. While it might be indulgent to write an essay like this, to be so self-conscious about my process, to find the time to examine it, it’s also a privilege to be able to think about the social role of my work. Giving up poetry is giving up a privilege, but it’s not like I’m giving up any rewards.
The creative despair wasn’t just about making a living. In the preceding year, my fear of not writing, usually a background hum, grew to a deafening roar. I was suffering burnout after writing Gone. I was exhausted. I kept telling people I was trying to slow down, but I didn’t tell them that I didn’t know how.
I am a fairly prolific writer, but it’s mostly because I don’t have much else to do. I have arranged my life this way on purpose. It is hard for me to write, but it is much harder when I don’t write, so I show up at my desk every day and I do something.
To be any kind of writer is to be in constant crisis, which is in part a product of the absurdity of making meaning from language. It is best not to pay too much attention to this and just carry on with your work. Of the forms available, poetry is closest to that absurdity. By quitting poetry, I was also trying to avoid the crisis of meaning. I was out of balance and afraid to shave that close to the edge.
There were warning signs. In the period leading up to giving up poetry, I mostly wrote poems about the flimsiness or uncertain use of writing. Despite having a long-standing rule not to write any poems about writing poems, I wrote this:
first, go to your room
you must have a particular room for this,
but the arrangement doesn’t have to be
look out the window at the bird
eating your plums.
see how the bird is not a poem, but a bird
picking at fruit and shitting where it sings
and it’s feral, and its song is not good.
and the plums are not yours either, but belong
to the plum tree.
there are enough things for everybody.
now fold up your mind, and be happy.
Let the world be, I tried to tell myself. It’s fine. Stop fucking with it. But of course it isn’t fine. It nags at you.
In her essay ‘On Writing Poetry’, Margaret Atwood describes being a schoolgirl walking across a football field ‘when a large invisible thumb descended from the sky and pressed down on the top of my head. A poem formed.’
I want that thumb to come back without being called. This is a childish and passive-aggressive manoeuvre, and I’m not proud of it. But I’m on strike. I want poetry to return with an offer of better conditions. I want it to tell me that it needs me. I want the world to come at me, charged with language, desperate to be described.
It’s interesting how many writers describe the poem as something in the world, some spark that asks us to recognise it. Take Nabokov: ‘A moment later my first poem began … the instant it all took to happen seemed to me not so much a fraction of time as a fissure in it, a missed heartbeat, which was refunded at once by a patter of rhymes …’ It’s as though we are passive to poetry, which happens to us.
But I have agency. I can resist it. The world is still charged, but writing it down is optional. That old gnawing at words, the internal repetitions and juxtapositions, has been a constant presence in my mental landscape, and it doesn’t go away. But I discover I can change the way I think about it. I push patterns away, I stop listening. I argue that it’s just a kind of obsessive disorder, a symptom of some neurosis. I notice how it overcomes me when I’m tired: repetitions of sounds, the musicality of language, picking at words. Maybe it’s like counting cracks in the cement, the obsessional stage all kids go through—a stage people are supposed to outgrow.
Instead of the thumb descending, I get a more surprising offer. Out of those clouds appears the idea that I won’t ever have to write another poem. What a wonderful gift, I think. Perhaps I am cured.
Poetry as pathology is another trap, of course. I know better than to see my mental health as anything other than positive. But I’m nutting out something every writer or artist has to struggle with on multiple occasions, if not constantly: do I need to write, and if not, why do I want to? Can’t I just be happy without it? Isn’t it simply more trouble than it’s worth? In your early career you hope that publishing will erase this feeling. It’s disappointing when it doesn’t. If you’re not careful, this anxiety about writing can grow a gravitational field and suck in other anxieties until it forms a good-sized mid-career slump or full-blown imposter syndrome. In order to work, you have to keep doubt as your constant companion. As Springsteen said: ‘Have iron-clad confidence, but doubt … Believe you are the baddest ass in town, and you suck.’
I can quit writing poetry, but I don’t give up reading it. I buy more books of poems than ever before, and I read hungrily. I churn through new Fabers and old ghazals; I download apps and subscribe to journals; I make many returns to the writers who have sustained me, and I find new ones.
I am looking for the same thing—the spark of life, the mystery—but I read differently when I am not writing. There’s a sense of resumed conversation with some of these texts, but my mind is also analysing: what is this for? How does it work? It’s a very private encounter, but I can’t stop evaluating it. There is, in that privacy, a restoration of sorts. I begin to think that poetry is primarily a relationship with the self. Then what is it for, except to salve one’s loneliness, and aren’t there better ways? And shouldn’t the self be left out of it?
Halfway through my year without poetry, Adrienne Rich dies, and I read her too. She writes about poetry as connection: the way that ‘all this has to travel from the nervous system of the poet, preverbal, to the nervous system of the one who listens, who reads, the active participant without whom the poem is never finished’.
I can’t write a poem to manipulate you; it will not succeed. Perhaps you have read such poems and decided you don’t care for poetry; something turned you away. I can’t write a poem from dishonest motives; it will betray its shoddy provenance, like an ill-made tool, a scissors, a drill, it will not serve its purpose, it will come apart in your hands at the point of stress. I can’t write a poem simply from good intentions, wanting to set things right, make it all better; the energy will leak out of it, it will end by meaning less than it says.
Yes, it’s personal. No, there are no better ways. Poetry, at its very core, is social. It needs to get between people to breathe. Perhaps I am only embarrassed by my own shoddy workmanship.
As my year without poetry goes on, it becomes clear that not writing poetry has consequences that are hard to quantify. There’s a hollow feeling in my solar plexus, that triangle between the organs where feelings tend to sit. Depression hovers in my peripheral vision and must be fought against. I start to suspect that I once took better care of my soul. I go for long walks, trying to come unstuck. I miss writing poetry, but I can’t identify what it is I miss. I recognise the sense of a prefiguring of loss.
Sometimes before a poem there is a dark feeling. A shadow passes over the mind, or a pressure appears that cannot be relieved. I feel bothered by some non-specific urge. I’m restless, hard to be around. The onset of a poem can be like the onset of a migraine: it sort of creeps up on you. According to Nadezhda Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova referred to this state as ‘prelyrical anxiety’. It’s an unpleasant feeling, but you get to know what it warns: the poem is on its way to you, like it or not. I’d be interested to know whether this is really a kind of neuropathology, perhaps a form of epilepsy. I am annoyed to discover I still have this feeling, with or without the poetry.
I find I agree that poetry is not something I do, but something that is done to me. The part of the process in which I have a hand is the part after the thumb, when I can edit and figure out meaning and structure and direction, or even when I can write it down. But the poem is essentially spontaneous. It is a mystery. It isn’t me. I think about this while I am walking, and it frightens me, because it is close to believing in ghosts.
On one of these walks, almost at the end of this vow of silence, I walk past pruners in a vineyard, then a dead fox, and this appears:
I passed a fox with an ear full of blood, / his tongue still out as if to taste / the last breath, and I wanted to know / how it tasted.
They have put a price on foxes / a tank of petrol a bottle / but not here yet, only talk
Could he hear his murderers pruning / in the next field / Did he lie listening
to the browned speech of day labourers / his heartbeat dropping / the punctuation of their secateurs
Was he disappointed / this red ferocity / at an end so poised and clean
that I could easily lie beside him / drape that rich tail across a hip / and sleep / in his flyblown sun
It comes from the fox and also nowhere. The wish to lie down with the dead fox, and the act of the poem, happen together. They are ways of seeking relief from a desire, and the desire is not for the fox or for poetry—the desire is the poem.
I post this one on Twitter (hence the weird line breaks). It pleases me to give it away immediately. I email it to a friend and we have a conversation about it and about his drawings. And then I find that I have no further ambition for this poem. I have failed in my vow, but the loss of ambition is wonderful. It satisfies something in me to write it and then let it go. That wish to lie down with the dead for a moment, and not be.
Is poetry, then, a way of not being? Or not being myself? I keep coming back to the opening lines of Rumi’s Masnavi:
of being separated.
‘Since I was cut from the reedbed,
I have made this crying sound.
Anyone apart from someone he loves
understands what I say.
Anyone pulled from a source
longs to go back …’ (version by Coleman Barks)
I don’t think you can contrive mystery. You can only contrive the conditions for mystery, and they aren’t about performing in front of an audience, or about placing your work on a high shelf surrounded by candles. The conditions are both social and internal. They’re about sensing a connection beyond the self. That is the reason we want to lie down dead, the communion that we are looking for when we connect: the perfect empathy is disappearance. Perhaps reverence is not the companion of mystery, but its opposite.
Slowly the secret pleasure returns, and I begin to write again, in privacy. I am tentative. I want to stay on guard against reverence, but I also want to be hushed and step quietly; I don’t want my poems to bolt into the wilderness. If I am honest, I don’t really want them to be poems.
The new practice is more personal and random than I would let it be if I were writing deliberately, or writing fiction. There is something in fiction that is both fearless and cowardly, redemptive and safe, and it suits me. I like the control, the distance. I am still thinking a lot about embarrassment and shame and writing. I’ve always been uncomfortable with confessional modes and memoir; a personal essay like this makes me squeamish, which is one of the reasons I’ve written it and one of the reasons it’s taken me so long. Yet I use Twitter. Maybe the ephemeral confession suits me better. It mimics the sensory rush and interconnectedness of living, but it’s also a safe, ironic distance. @millsjenjen is a fictional entity, close to my self but not me. And she’s in dialogue, as I think the poet always wants to be: experiencing the self as a false integrity.
I’m still not publishing, and I’m still saying no to poetry events—the last meal ruined my appetite. Poetry and I remain embarrassed and estranged. But we sneak up on each other. We climb out the windows of our houses, and we peer back in.
Looking for what? It’s always been obvious, and I still don’t know.
Margaret Atwood, Waterstone’s Poetry Lecture, 1995.
Coleman Barks, Say I Am You, Maypop Books, Athens, Georgia, 1994.
Nadezhda Mandelstam, Mozart & Salieri: An Essay on Osip Mandelstam & the Poetic Process, trans. Robert A. McLean, Vintage Books, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1973.
Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1967.
Adrienne Rich, ‘Someone Is Writing a Poem’, 1993.
Bruce Springsteen, SXSW Keynote Address, 2012.