Tuesday, 28 February 2012

The 'Sleeping' Poet

The poet exists in two states: awake and ‘asleep’, and these two conditions are influenced/ determined by a singular act, or rather the lack of it.  If a poet is not writing is she still a poet?  Is a difference present; is she different when she is writing to when she is not?

I don’t think I could live without it.  It’s like water or bread or something absolutely essential to me.  I find myself absolutely fulfilled when I have written a poem, when I am writing one...  Having written one, well then, you fall away very rapidly from having been a poet to becoming a sort of poet in rest.
(From an interview with Sylvia Plath)
On a grammatical level, the difference is caused by the verb usage: the poet is writing a poem or the poet has written a poem.  The latter utterance, with its past tense transitive verb, does not comment upon a current activity, but rather an activity that has since lapsed.  However, to state that one is ‘writing’ would mean that the present participle is in application, and thus is very much active.  Therefore, the poet fluctuates from past to present, ‘sleeping’ to awake, and it is writing that stirs her into full consciousness. 
However, fullness is lost when the pen slips from her grip – a semi half-life envelops her and her finger is pierced by a needle; the same sharpness and severity as that found upon the spinning wheel – sending her hand into a motionless sleep.  The poet is no longer directly engaged in writing, her present has fallen suddenly and sadly into the past – and she wonders, will she stay there?  Questioning if she will ever find writing again, or whether she will merely remember the poems she once wrote.
In some respects, when she is not writing, she becomes a victim of the past; a Sleeping Beauty trapped and devalued by the singular past tense form of the verb to be.  And during these moments there is no third person singular present tense, no knight on white horse, no ‘magic’ that sees words transposing themselves upon paper, and no complete self.  She was a poet, but what or who is she now?  An empty bottle that had its purpose drained by fear...  If there is no poet there is no poem, and what becomes of the poem’s identity?  A transparent bottle smashed – void of contents and form...  And without the poem there is no poet.  Each relies upon the other; the poet and poem must co-exist, and the loss of one is a wound which will markedly impact on what remains.
She makes a prediction with a negative modal auxiliary and foresees that she won’t be a poet; her future won’t be poetry and the slumbering figure will never wake onto yellow paper – ever again.  But she has not died, she is merely ‘sleeping’, and in the dreams and nightmares of her mind ideas still formulate, thinking still deviates and manipulates, and she hears a pen weeping for its owner.  Thus, the mind of a poet still remains...

*          *          *

Self-doubt is the apple and perfectionism its poison.  She cannot be a poet because she cannot believe it, and she cannot write poetry (again) because it will never be what the previous poem was.  There is a voice whose tones drone with improbability, and spit with impossible conclusions...
However, she probably would not alter the day – a distant, long ago time in her childhood – when an apple pip was planted and which eventually became a tree that bore one poisoned apple.  There were times when she had wished that she could chop the tree down, and send the solitary apple falling from the branches like the giant from the beanstalk.  But would she be the same person without it?  Perhaps she would not have needed writing, and even if they had still found each other the poem would inevitably be unrecognisable.

And your doubt can become a good quality if you train it.  It must become knowing, it must become criticism.  Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proof from it, test it, and you will find it perhaps bewildered and embarrassed, perhaps also protesting.  But don’t give in, insist on arguments, and act in this way, attentive and persistent, every single time, and the day will come when, instead of being a destroyer, it will become one of your best workers – perhaps the most intelligent of all the ones that are building your life.  (Letters to A Young Poet, R. M.Rilke)

If I didn’t write I would always be ‘asleep’ –
                                                       never knowing what it means, or is like, to be awake

Thank you for reading,


Ste said...

Well do I know this feeling. You love it and hate it don't you? All creativity stems from it and yet it knaws at your insides. You overcome it with a piece of work and get a huge buzz, but it wears off and leaves you stuck with the doubt again. Great, thought provoking post as usual. Been stuck in Birmingham all day so only just got home to read it. Now if I can just write mine...

Ashley R Lister said...

I've been out teaching all day - which is why I've not been able to respond earlier.

"But she has not died, she is merely ‘sleeping’, and in the dreams and nightmares of her mind ideas still formulate, thinking still deviates and manipulates, and she hears a pen weeping for its owner. Thus, the mind of a poet still remains..."

This was the phrase that stood out for me. I was going to argue that the writer remains a writer (whether writing or not) because writing is a thinking process - not the active verb of putting pen to paper. But that sentence of yours that I've quoted sums up my position on these thoughts.

Excellent post.