‘People shouldn’t write so many poems,’ said one of the publishers.
It was at the Ledbury Festival and it was a panel event well over a decade ago. One of the issues under discussion was the quantity of poetry produced relative to the publishing outlets available. But what I remember most is Michael Mackmin’s immediate response to that statement. ‘Yes, they should,’ he said with feeling. ‘They should write as many poems as they want!’
And I agree. Even though I sigh when poets approach me with their work and tell me they’ve written over 400 poems in the last three months. But that’s not because I think they shouldn’t. It’s because more is not better, and I’m biassed in favour of slow work.
The more I think about it, the more it seems to me the act of writing is a wonderful thing, an almost holy thing. It is completely separate from the issue of publication, which is far less holy (though sometimes lovely).
It’s a communication, isn’t it, writing? And mysteriously and marvellously, its act of communication can continue after the writer is gone.
I’m working at the moment on the pieces of writing my mother left after her death, collecting them as a set. Mostly they’re stories and anecdotes, based on memory. Her brain, because of her illness, had become like a bucket with a hole in it. As fast as she filled it with stories, her ability to remember trickled out of the bottom. At first the hole was tiny and the loss was imperceptible. Then it got bigger, and bigger.
But for more than ten years, she was a member of a writing group, and this encouraged her to keep putting things down. Each week the group met, and each person read out something he or she had written during the week. To begin with, she loved this. As time went on, she used to moan and groan. ‘What on earth can I write about this week?’
There was always something. Some scrap of the past could be brought along. Some amusing thing would happen and it could be shared, and it was – with triumph and delight.
In this way, parts of her life were described for an audience, and saved. Her illness advanced, and even when her memory betrayed her utterly, those stories and rhymes could be read back to her, to her delight (‘Did I really write that?’). For family and carers, it was a way to learn things about her (and sometimes ourselves) that we would never otherwise have known.
My mother loved to write. All her life she loved it, and it was good for her. Sometimes people criticise the idea that poetry may be ‘mere’ therapy. What nonsense! Of course it’s therapeutic. All writing is.
It was important for my mother to put things into words that other people would understand, and in so doing make them clearer. Because writing does that: it clarifies.
I think of it like clarifying butter in a saucepan, where you heat the butter gently until the fat and the whey separate and the clear gold rises to the top and the milk solids sink to the bottom. But if you get over-excited and apply too much heat, the milk solids start to burn and the whole process falls apart.
Careful writing clarifies. Helps you see things. It’s a beautiful thing.
In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he says ‘Do not come lightly to the blank page’. Another way, I think, of remarking on the holiness of the act. And though I agree that the writer should not come lightly to the task, writing imparts lightness to the writer and, when the clarification process works, light to the reader.
Even here. Even in a blog, of which people write too many, too lightly.
But they should write as many as they want.