The sculptor Henry Moore was perhaps most eloquent on the subject: ‘I think in terms of the day’s resolutions, not the year’s’. For the artist or writer, it is virtually impossible to set such restrictions on how to create, for so much of our practice is based on (I hate this word) inspiration. Inspiration is just a heightened term for not really knowing what is going to happen next, when suddenly, it just happens. There are writers who swear by schedules: you must be at your desk at a certain hour for a certain length of time, and in that time, you must produce a certain number of words; so that writing becomes like any office task. And that discipline works for some writers, although I would imagine it is more suitable for prose writers than for poets. Definitely not suitable for me; I have never been a disciplined writer. When I was working on my (still unpublished) novel, I would find twenty reasons not to be writing, perhaps because it felt too much like hard work. I have always responded best to spontaneity, writing myself to an answer when I didn’t know the question in the first place. In his poem ‘Lesson’, Eamon Grennan describes that moment:
and I began to understand
how a poem can happen: you have your eye on a small
elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth
strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.
I wish I could sit down at my desk every morning and start writing and know that by the time I get up again I will have something meaningful, something worth pursuing. Poets seem to be particularly slow and inconsistent workers in the artistic world. I have several theories about that (all of which apply to me): poets have short attention spans, they are lazy, they are not good at closure, their negativity leads them to believe that nothing they write is of any poetic merit (and that no one is reading their work anyhow, so what’s the point of continuing?).
But one thing is true for all of us. Time is the enemy of art. There is never enough of it. As Hippocrates said, ‘ars longa, vita brevis’. Editions of collected works by dead poets depress me, especially thin ones. There will never be more. I see myself in terms of page numbers. Neil Rollinson has a great poem about his anxiety over the open brackets after his birth date in anthologies. But at the risk of sounding terminally gloomy at the beginning of this new year and new decade, I recognise that Time is also what links me to the poets and artists I love who’ve come before (and those who will come after) and what lives of me in print will live beyond me (even when the brackets are closed).
And so, I will start the year with a quote from WG Sebald, which should stand to remind me why it is I do sit down at this desk every day (but not always at the same time), why the effort is worthwhile:
It was only by following the course time prescribed that we could hasten through the gigantic spaces separating us from each other.
The image is by Jasper Johns