It was only last year that I came across the work of the American poet William Stafford for the first time. What I’ve read of him so far has a puzzling, introvert quality that resonates in a quiet way with me. Apparently, after his death he left behind 22,000 poems, of which only 3000 were published during his lifetime. If you set out to carefully read six of those remaining Stafford poems a day, you’d have enough to keep you busy for around 3167 days or more than eight and a half years. Say I started right now: I’d be humming the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-four” by the time I finished . . .
The current world population stands at around 7.6 billion as of January 2018. Many people feel that that’s a major cause for concern. It’s also a bit threatening to one’s sense of personal worth. What possible significance can I have in such an engulfing crowd, and how many people would even notice if I were no longer here? But what about the poetry overpopulation? Not only are there large reserves of unread poetry written by major figures such as Stafford; there’s also all the new poetry that is constantly being written all over the world. Where I live, in Australia, around 80 or so new books of poems are published annually, making a modest contribution of approximately 4800 new pieces, together with the hundreds of other bits that appear in magazines and on-line journals. In a time of a 7.6 billion poems, shouldn’t writers feel a little uneasy about adding to this already vastly inflated storehouse of verse?
But that’s not my main point. My central question concerns the use of the verb “to write” in the context of poetry. It’s one we all use all the time, of course, but how accurate is it, really? Another reason for liking William Stafford is because he called into question this idea of writing. He sketches his view in the following quote from “A Way of Writing”:
They talk about “skills” in writing. Without denying that I do have experience, wide reading, automatic orthodoxies and manoeuvres of various kinds, I still must insist that I am often baffled about what “skill” has to do with the precious little area of confusion when I do not know what I am going to say and then I find out what I am going to say. That precious interval I am unable to bridge by skill. What can I witness about it? It remains mysterious, just as all of us must feel puzzled about how we are so inventive as to be able to talk along through complexities with our friends, not needing to plan what we are going to say, but never stalled for long in our confident forward progress.
At the very least, then, writing in Stafford’s view is more like a writing down. Paradoxically, the “I” that doesn’t know what to say someone becomes, through a receptiveness to that unobtrusive “precious interval”, an “I” that does know. To me, this seems like a very peculiar form of activity, one that is somehow passive and active at the same time. Or possibly it requires a whole new terminology that takes us beyond the usual framework of acting and being acted upon. It reminds of the lines in Alice Oswald’s wonderful, long river-poem Dart that go “The Dart, lying low in darkness calls out Who is it? / trying to summon itself by speaking . . .”
It is for this reason that I feel writers need to start using the word “writing” with a bit more caution. And curiosity about the central role of unknowing at the heart of the creative experience.
Stafford’s comments certainly echo with my own rather subdued practice. I try and sit down for 45 minutes two or three times a week to see what happens. For the most part, very little at all takes place on the page, and as I patiently wait for “inspiration”, my feeling of incompetence gets stronger as the time drags on. Often, all I can manage is a few disconnected lines — usually with some rather obvious punning involved. Here’s a transcription of a recent “writing” session:
walks barefoot across broken grass
primitive, timid, diminutive, scarce
too scared or careless to be who you belonged to
runs rings around confidence when the extinguished wick meets its match
There were a few more things in this vein, but nothing at all connected in any sense, and certainly no poetry as it’s usually practised. But then there are the times when — out the blue, a completely unexpected fluency occurs and you can’t help thinking I didn’t write that, did I? For that reason, it seems downright misguided, not to say fundamentally disrespectful to the whole uncanny process, to write your own name confidently beside this sudden act of art, as if it were solely your own doing. And yet, without one’s own participation in the procedure, there would be nothing to record. And there is no doubt that the process can be enhanced with attentive re-reading and conscientious revision. But all that’s just follow-up and tinkering.
Thanks to Stafford, I now feel more than a bit uncomfortable with the verb “to write”. He himself seems fond of the word “reception”: perhaps “to recept” might be the term we need. I recently bought a book in Hong Kong about a famous traditional Chinese painter by the name of Qi Baishi. In English, the title of the book roughly translates as Cooking Paintings with Stones. There is definitely a cookery element in “recepting”, but in this case the ingredients come from somewhere just out of this world. Actually, I’ve become a bit obsessed with thinking up a better alternative. The best I can manage to date — and it’s certainly not a very succinct formulation! — is:
to backhandedly actively court . . .
Failing that, for the time being I content myself with “poeming” poems, in order not to betray the enigma any more than necessary with inadequate human terms.