In her masterclass, Terese Svoboda offered some helpful suggestions about the craft of writing. ‘Poets should attempt all kinds of form and constraints,’ she claimed, with a willingness to experiment with syllabics and metre. This made me think of the possibilities of form and language. Admittedly, at times it feels like I’m just finding wildly different ways to say the same thing. I would like to explore various forms of narrative and sequence (sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, and haiku, for example). I hope to experiment with flarf poetry, found poetry, language poetry, conceptual poetry and any other ways where language moves outside of the first-person, lyrical relationship poem. There remains a sense of quiet understatement in my work as I go on hesitating about the world. I want to detach from these striking similarities, experimenting with poetic form and language in search of my own distinct style.
Another statement from Svoboda that resonated for me was the almost off-hand remark that ‘writing is something worth dedicating one’s life to.’ I found this profoundly reassuring. To hear that despite how irrational it seems to write—especially poetry, a form that’s essentially impossible to make a living from—there’s still a purpose to what we do: a comfort that the creation of art is still worth pursuing.
The question of why one writes has troubled writers for centuries. Some of the more notable responses to this question include Flaubert’s famous line that, ‘writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living,’ and Joan Didion’s ‘I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.’ My favourite example, though, is from George Orwell’s 1946 essay ‘Why I Write’, which reduces the craft to four simple motives:
(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.
(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.
(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
(iv) Political purpose. Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.
While Orwell’s criteria, especially ‘political purpose’, is informed by the extraordinary historical events that beset him and his contemporaries, they maintain a perennial relevance. A simpler personal answer (and one I am sure is not my own) to the question of why I write—and why I write poetry—might be: I write because I’m compelled to.
With a Master of Arts in English Literature, I’m often asked why I would study another Master’s degree, especially another Master of Arts. In economic terms, it seems absurd to add another year to my student loan—delaying further the establishment of a career—to write a poetry portfolio that only three people will read.
At times it seems like everyone else is living the life except me. At twenty-five, I’m officially a mature student. I have fewer years of professional experience under my belt than I have actual belts. What am I still studying for while my contemporaries conquer the world? The grass certainly appears greener through an Instagram filter on the Adriatic coast of Croatia. But the fear of missing out is hardly a new phenomenon. It just feels more profound at a critical period such as this, as we all scramble to define ourselves. Most of us take company in a shared doubt and uncertainty. Writing, I suppose, is no different.
We write knowing there’s essentially no hope of ever producing an income, but making art and sharing it with the world is still worth it. While there’s a satisfaction in having your name on something published, something publicly accessible, publication—especially the publication of poetry—does not amount to the promise of fame and distinction that I used to associate with it. I see writing poetry less about my own pride or ‘sheer egoism’, as Orwell puts it, and more about the wider cultural importance of the work, about trying to enrich the lives of readers (even though no one really reads my poems anyway). Sadly, though, being published does not actually amount to much more than personal validation. Poetry is probably the least profitable form of writing there is. Lots of New Zealand’s best, most prolific poets still have to work other jobs. In fact, unless you are the next Eleanor Catton writing The Luminaries in your spare time, it’s unlikely you will ever make much money from writing. Alas, for Svoboda, it’s still an enterprise worth dedicating our lives to.