A Personal Poetics
The task for me in writing a poem is the search for context. Quite often poems start from something I’ve read, usually just a single word. It’s not so much the rhythm of a word that lures me; it’s as if that word suddenly becomes an enormous edifice of meanings and associations. I wander in, take a look. Sometimes this is a place full of tricks, strange passageways, doors, blind doors and windows with ledges and views that can entice me to leap. Often I risk a fall, or I may try to find my way out again, or work my way around using my voice like a compass to locate my position, or progress much as a blind person feels by touch. If I can’t get the voice clear and focused and sounding, I may be trapped for weeks searching for its echo. Mostly it’s like one of those pencil-mazes where you have to find the unobstructed route. I work a great deal by trial and error, though occasionally an innate sense comes into play and the poem unfolds along its inevitable path. The difficulty lies in trying to see what the structure is, moving from image to image with a sense of purpose and direction. Images must find a context that will connect them, much in the way that furniture takes on its meaning when you find out who owns the house. Finding that relationship, for me, is the real work in a poem.
My poems don’t start from ideas. Their source is never the intellect, but they are very definitely derived from sensory experience. Certain objects take hold of me; I have written poems from such objects as china plates, oranges, birds and fishing reels, to name just a few. I see my poems as coming out of an exchange of energy, an exchange that involves many processes and parts of myself all working together to grind down the essence of an experience, process it, mix it into combinations, give it new shape, transform it and work it into a final product. This may turn out to be an artefact that does disservice to or distorts the original. But I make an appeal to beauty and I see what happens.
I love this process. It is infinitely fascinating and intriguing. Though so much of it goes on at an unconscious level, like so many cells working away, eventually so much is revealed. I see my own creativity in adult life as a continuation of the joy children have: the genuine love of making. Luckily, children don’t worry about whether or not their games are ‘working’. There is no self-critic. They are truly given to this process, to the game in hand. One of my worries as a poet is whether I may hinder this process by intruding too much upon it.
Writing for me is full of ambiguities and contradictions. I believe poems can be the product of both inspiration and will, yet this to me seems a paradox. I have willed many poems into existence, willed them to life. They have been born out of persistence and dogged determination. Yet others have simply arrived clean, fully formed, with the minimum of labour and fuss. This is nothing new. Every writer experiences this wide gap in process. The former practice may in fact hinder access to the latter kind of poem. Yet waiting for a poem to arrive is intolerable for me. I will readily lock myself into a mode of working incessantly — sometimes for weeks on end, for eight or nine hours a day — to haul a poem up from the depths. Though I love the sense of vocation this provides, I have a feeling that this approach may be somewhat useless, because it requires too much concentration on the work itself and not enough attention to living. This is my main dilemma as a writer: to find a balance between the practice required and a certain quality of living that will make the poetry richer. I think it is dangerous to lose sight of the intricate connection between one’s life and art. Major changes in one’s writing are more likely to be brought about by major life-changes than through any deliberately adopted change in technique or poetic strategy. Poetry is an opening up of consciousness that may have very little to do with acquired practice or skill and more to do with receptiveness and certain mental states.
I think there must be ways of living and being that promote the tendency towards ‘poetic experience’, much in the way that certain disciplines give access to the transcendent. In fact, the two for me are interchangeable. The problem, I find, is how to gain access to this part of myself in a consistent way. I’m often torn between the desire to produce art and the desire to go off to a cave and expand my awareness. A year of this may be more useful than ten years at the desk. I do believe, however, that a regular, consistent engagement with one’s creative intelligence — be it through writing poetry or whatever — can only be beneficial to the spiritual health of the individual. Whether this will produce great art is another matter.
I find it essential for my own survival to step beyond the frustration of failure or rejection and to forget that poetry has scarcely any popular appeal or support. In fact, I’m rather like a hermit in my approach. Whether my poems ever get an audience of ten or ten thousand is irrelevant to the way I write. No audience is ever in mind other than myself, that sole participant and disparaging critic who must be charmed and won over.
When I began writing in my late adolescence, the impulses were largely psychological. I started writing poetry because I felt a disease within myself. I’m sure a lot of people start out this way. But I write now for quite different reasons. The early psychological pressures have mostly been resolved or released, or replaced by others that require a different method of healing. I write now more out of a genuine love for the art. I love what is possible with poetry and I suppose I would ascribe to it a fairly lofty function, in that it goes against most of the values that promote the present acceptance of materialistic pursuits in an egocentric, goal-oriented society. I love poetry because it is a pursuit independent of any industrial or economic system and because it allows for ambiguity and meanings beyond the factual and rational.
Before sitting down to write I perform a certain indulgence. I hope it is more than an eccentric habit. I light a few sticks of incense and watch the smoke turn over and wind back in on itself, a movement both beautiful and alluring. I suppose, in part, this is an attempt to woo and relax that part of myself that is willing to be uptight and critical of whatever I’m going to write. I take a few deep breaths. I’m readied to be lured by language — if at first only as a hint wafting in on a draught.
Though there is no such thing as a formula for writing, perhaps certain elements can be isolated. When I write I try for a certain effect, as if the images are the essential oils that will carry the message, as if the poem like the censer itself is a combination of powder notes and top notes, the rhythm and the flow of language and that pitch of poetic voice that freshens the poem.
I find that my poems can never be predicted; it is always a process of unfolding and discovery. This is what keeps me writing. If I knew the itinerary beforehand, I wouldn’t bother packing. In a recent poem called ‘Incense’, all I knew was that I wanted to make a sensory journey into the world of fragrance. Finally, after probably two hundred versions, the poem wandered from its initial interior setting into the outdoors, to a garden with its fragrances of decay and childhood memories — and an elegy for my father emerged.
Feeling the world give and give, one thing opening up to another, is what I enjoy most. As the poet William Stafford says, one must also be willing to fail and not to bother too much about standards. The hope is that eventually some coherence will emerge. This process basically remains a mystery to me. Though I may be able to give a retrospective account of a poem, while it is being written I remain just the quiet, observant passenger at the mercy of the driver.
Poetry is a difficult art and probably one of the most difficult vocations to maintain as one grows older. I think one’s thirties may be the crucial time when responsibilities mount, when the idealism and aspirations of youth have faded, when the scanty remuneration and public respect take on a harder edge. The late Vincent Buckley in a recent issue of Southerly commented that he wouldn’t wish upon his children that they became poets. Despite its difficulties and frustrations, I can only feel grateful my life has taken this course. I feel infinitely lucky to be engaged in this activity. I wouldn’t make any claims that poetry can change the world; it reaches too few people for this ever to be a possibility. Yet if I’ve felt inclined to be brought down by my own limitations and failed attempts, then others’ poetry has always uplifted me. There are so many poems I feel grateful for. In fact, I couldn’t imagine my life without them, so much have they become an integral and meaningful part of my existence. I believe that, essentially, humankind is greater than even our wildest hopes. Poetry reinforces this for me. My hope in writing is not, as it once may have been, to be ‘loved’ or to find approval, but rather that readers may love and approve of themselves and the world more. This is what so many poets have done for me. In their moments of excellence, they have shown me what is possible.
Judith Beveridge is a contemporary Australian poet, editor and academic. She was poetry editor of Meanjin from 2005 to 2015.