The Seven Stooges

(Working my way through a backlog of blog postings, I found this little set of notes, a sort of potted seven stages of the poetic life, among my drafts. It popped into my head back in June while commuting. For ‘you’ read ‘I’, probably. For ‘Joy’ read Curly, for ‘Arrogance’ read Moe; for everything else read Larry.)

You begin in the delight of play: the early encounter with a poem, a poet, a poetry, happens alongside the realisation of your own early fluency – which you mistake for mastery. Unless you’re very lucky, you get to feel you’re making where you don’t suspect you’re mimicking.

This leads to a kind of empty arrogance: you haven’t really read enough or practiced enough to understand either the present condition of the craft or your position in relation to it. But you still go for it: a necessary mistake.

Then, if you’re even luckier, an extraordinary set of possibilities gradually or immediately appears before you: modes, themes, techniques, subjects, personae – canons constellate, influences become genealogies, poems enter into a dialogue you can eavesdrop upon. This is of course your vocation.

This engenders a second arrogance, which can manifest itself in two attempts: at a career, which carries you apparently untouched through years of neglect or success; or at a poetic, which means you try to impose your exciting new dogmas on others.

Gradually this gives way to a further joy in the work, in its seemingly limitless possibilities that you realise has little to do with the self or the system – these are only sets of circumstances that permit the permutations.

Then the broader field of circumstances – your responsibility to others, whether family, peers or students – begins to exert sufficient pressure for you to enter into a little agon of balance: can the word and the world be reconciled? No. They were never separate enough to require your recalibrations.

But how exactly does that realm of text you’ve engendered relate to the reception of literature in the milieu you’re so busy inhabiting? Not just your suspicions and suppositions but the work itself must undergo a crisis as you gauge your audibility or lack of it, your centrality or peripherality. And this leads either to a third, senescent arrogance, or to a final, fuller joy.

Either, cosseted by approval or made perverse by neglect, you cling to the personal and become mannerist, an echo louder than its source. Or, tested to uncover the living roots of your writing, you become lost in that endeavour, in that deep pleasure of work which has actually been present at every stage, but now seeks fuller, equal communion with audience, ancestors, and the literature to come.


About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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