Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Emotional Life and Creativity

Workshopping a poem at the weekend, I'd taken this one along because it wasn't quite right in a number of ways. The workshop brought out its problems; though perhaps not its solutions. I'm not always that linear in my poetry - even though I sometimes appear to be. As often, I'll find a theme and spin a few different thoughts around it. I realised that the poem was caught between being linear and this more abstracted approach - and of course, to the reader, unless the juxtapositions are obviously different, there's a tendency to want to read these things straight.

Part of the reason was that it was a poem about mental illness - or was it? I'd begun with a conceit - even, a title - and had used this to write a poem that was quite dark in its subject matter. Yet it wasn't a personal poem and certainly wasn't "specific" about me or anyone else. Rather, it was seeking a little to pull together observations on how in adult life the "monsters under the bed" that frighten us as children can be real. I'll not post the poem here, as it's currently failed to express my thoughts - perhaps they weren't quite there; and the poem was more a random gathering of images. One person said that there are so many poems about personal experience of depression/mental illness that a non-personalised view didn't seem strong enough. I guess I agreed, except by the very sense of observation I think I was trying to move away from that more "confessional" strand - Plath, Berryman et al.

But it did make me think a bit. When I tried to write a poem a month a while back for National Poetry Writing Month it stopped me writing for a couple of months afterwards. I was literally sick of poems. Or rather, I was wrung out with the sense I was writing poems as "things" rather than poems that meant "something." Although I've always felt my best poems are, in a somewhat un-British way, poems of ideas, they've also only ever really come from the emotion: "only connect the prose and the passion" as E.M. Forster had it. When you write a poem about love or about death or about any of the very human things that console and confront us, do we always need to tap into the emotional wells? There are, of course, other forms of poetry than the confessional - and I'm uneasy about the poetry sequence that is always "in memoriam" or similarly felt; yet at times it sees poets at their very best. I think that has to be some distance.

Writing from emotion or at an emotional time can be cathartic but it can also be to much "about" the self when I think it probably needs to be "of" the self. There seems a distinct difference between things I've written when I've felt a bit of a "black dog" of depressiveness descending - which sometimes seems to be a ball of creativity that needs pushing out - and when I've written self-defeatedly about the thing that's depressing me. Too close to the cause of your anger, and the writing is infected by it, rather than inspired by it. Or at least, that's what I've often felt. "Revenge is a dish best eaten cold", they say, and it's probably true of writing as well.

Yet emotion is not merely a negative - love; elation; whatever - these are equally important - and, thinking back, I've often upped my game when I've been inspired, even briefly, by more positive emotions. Having just had a poem accepted for a magazine for the first time in ages, I wondered why that one in particular. And perhaps its because its a poem about desire; but not a delayed, or distant desire, but a palpable, real one. The girl in the poem has a face; even if I didn't actually go much further in describing it. If anything, it was a poem about a "moment" of desire; and that was already gone - already able to make the transition from feeling into art. Thinking back, and looking at the poems in "Playing Solitaire for Money" and even the first section of "Extracts from Levona", I realise that these often came out of a similar heightening of emotion. Looking back, they weren't necessarily great loves, or terrible despairs, but moments of anticipation, or splinters of uncertainty. The poem acts as a divining rod, often failing to twitch when it is moved over dry grounds, but frantic and insistent when it divines the water below.


Tim Love said...

Some people write when happy, others when sad. Quite a few write because of a sudden mood-swing. Some people recollect these moments in tranquility.
Judged objectively (in terms of acceptances, prizes, or tears at workshops) my spontaneous pieces are flops. Were they cathartic? No - I think getting the emotion out is much use unless they have a destination (the emotion just hangs around). Even I don't like my spontaneous pieces later.
My most common trick is to record my heart-felt reaction to a minor event (say, getting a poetry rejection) and use it in a piece about a major event (say, losing a lover). The reaction becomes powerful and understated rather than indulgent.

Clare Wilson said...

This was a very interesting post! I found it intriguing to read of another poet who has better luck writing about emotional experience from a slight remove, rather than immediately as they happen.

The emotional impulse, sometimes very slight, is needed, but by waiting until some other encounter or experience drops an inspiration into my mind, my poem becomes more universal. Writing out of raw emotion is actually very hard!