Finding your voice as a poet
Posted by Dawn Cockcroft on 2017-10-17
Tony Watts is an author published in our Grist collection of poetry and prose: I You He She It. As part of #OAWeek we asked Tony to talk about his writing processes and how other writers have influenced the way he approaches his work.
I tend to describe my creative life as a state of permanent writer’s block occasionally interrupted by a poem. I normally feel so uninspired that my total output of about six hundred poems is a constant source of amazement to me. I’ve no idea how I did that: it feels as though they were written by someone else – someone much brighter than me. On the other hand, I don’t just sit around waiting for inspiration (that way lies madness): I keep my oeuvre in a constant state of revision – that is to say, I keep going methodically through the lot looking for what can be improved or rejected. And when I get to the end, I go back and start again (Sisyphus comes to mind). As a young aspirational poet I puzzled about how or where I could “find my voice”. I was led to believe that “finding your voice” was something important that you had to do before you could be a proper poet. The trouble was that whatever I wrote tended to look like an exercise in the style of the poet I was currently reading. “In that case, just stop reading”, you might say. And how wrong you would be. The solution is to do the opposite – to read as much and as widely as possible – and your “voice” will gradually emerge all on its own. Billy Collins hit the nail on the head: “The source for a poet’s voice is external, not internal. It lies within the poetry section of a library. It is the voice of all those other poets who influence you and are ideally ‘recombined’ in a way that the reader can’t identify very quickly.” He might have added that there is a catalytic factor involved in this alchemy – and that is the unique set of memories that constitutes your experience of life on earth. A.E. Housman, Thomas Hardy, W.B. Yeats, Robert Graves, Ted Hughes, R.S. Thomas… these are just some of the favourite poets who, in my case, were fed into the top end of the funnel. What comes oozing sluggishly out the bottom end is “my” voice. When asked why he climbed Everest, George Mallory famously replied, “Because it’s there”. If you asked me why I’m writing a poem, I might say, “Because it isn’t there”. As a poem begins to take shape in your head, there comes a moment when you become simultaneously aware that there is a poem-shaped hole in the universe and that it has fallen to you to make good this serious deficiency by filling it. Philip Larkin thought that the reason we write is that everything that’s been written so far is somehow inadequate. He was right. While it may seem the height of hubris to imagine you can fill a gap carelessly left vacant by every great writer of the past, the fact remains that the universe has changed – it now has you in it. And that makes all the difference.You can read the Grist collection online, open access here .
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