Sunday, October 14, 2007

Writing Poetry: Addiction or Affliction?

I just came across this recent article in the Independent on Sunday, where Sean O'Brien, winner of this year's Forward Prize for Best New Collection, apparently warns new writers that poetry is an 'affliction' and 'no way to make a living'.

Whilst not entirely disagreeing with Sean O'Brien, I have to admit that this attitude reminds me of my mother - herself a best-selling novelist worldwide - who used to warn me away from a career in writing, helpfully pointing out waitressing or shelf-stacking jobs in the local paper instead. 'Less precarious an existence,' she would say, and she was absolutely right, of course.

Writing, for the vast majority of practitioners, is an extremely precarious existence. You have no money to speak of, no friends because you're always banging away at a keyboard, no spouse because you aren't much of a marriage prospect or else they've left you for someone more attentive, no kids (or kids who view your work with loathing because it seems more important to you than they are), and - which is perhaps worst of all - the constant soul-grinding awareness that none of it is going to matter, that the work you leave behind will be forgotten sooner than you are. Sadly though, none of this makes any difference when some people choose whether or not to be - or continue to be - a poet.

For some writers, the prospect or reality of poverty, divorce, loneliness, the contempt of others, children who claim you were 'never there for them', all of the terrible accompanying conditions of the average poet's life, pale into insignifance when faced with a blank sheet of paper. For those, writing poetry will always be more of an addiction than an affliction. Those who are dilettantes can always escape, change their minds, get out while they still can. For the rest, escape has never been an option.

Of course, there must be poets out there who keep their spouses and children, earn a reasonable wage or are supported by someone else, and stay happy. Smile if that sounds like your life.

1 comment:

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear Jane

Thank God I'm a dilettante! Is there no limit to your talents? I am only gradually beginning to realize what a true Renaissance woman you are.

Warm wishes from Simon