Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Water of Life?

I can't be the only poet who's sometimes a bit intimidated by those rare and gifted writers who can rattle off new work every day without seeming to break into a sweat. One of the most prolific (and talented) poets I know recently complained to me that she'd only managed to write four poems in the preceding month. I couldn't help replying that that was about as many as I’d managed to write all year.

The truth is, producing poetry at that kind of rate is not something that's likely to happen throughout a poet's life. Pressures of work, the demands of family life, and the cares of the world can all conspire to squeeze out the emotional space that's crucial to the creative process. We needn't feel we are failures when that happens.

The bottom of a whisky bottle isn't perhaps the safest or most reliable place to look for comfort at such times! But there's a certain similarity between what it takes to make a good poem, and what it takes to make a good single malt. Poetry, after all, is also a distillation – an attempt to refine the raw material of human emotion into its most concentrated essence. This process is not something you can hurry. The result may occupy minimal space on the page (or in the bottle) but it's loaded with flavour and impact.

The analogy doesn't end there. As every whisky connoisseur knows, it's usually what happens after the distillation that makes the unique flavour of each single malt. It can't even be called whisky unless it's given a minimum 3 years in the barrel to absorb the flavours of oak and atmosphere. In practice, it usually takes much longer to mature the perfect single malt.

That's the way it is with poetry too. After the initial creative act, it can take a long time for a poem to reach perfection. What follows is a slow process of maturation – of gradual refinement. Replacing one word with a more expressive one; fine tuning the metre; inserting assonances and internal rhymes; adding the brilliant metaphor that usually turns up when we least expect it. This is not a process that should be hurried. Some of my poems are still maturing, years after they were first created. They're not quite right, yet. I won't release them on the unsuspecting public until they are.

There's everything to be said for the daily discipline of writing (even when it feels like the last thing you're ready to do). Poetically fertile periods do come, with poems appearing in a rush. Make the most of these periods, because they won't last forever. And if you're far from those ultra-creative highs, do not despair. Give those poems-in-progress the time and space they need to reach maturity. Let them absorb the rich flavours of your life experience. And trust your poet's palate. You'll know when they are ready.

(This article first appeared in the April 2011 issue of NAWG LINK magazine)