As I make changes in my life to make more room for writing I have been reflecting on the process of writing itself, and particularly on what is happening when I write poetry. I want to resist the popular image of the writer as a lonely isolated ‘creative’ somehow making it all up and achieving it by themselves. It seems to me we all receive an inheritance of language, insights, images and ideas, which we in our turn, take and shape and pass on, that all writing is part of a collaboration, a collective human effort to articulate, explore and celebrate the miracle and mystery of our being here. This is especially true of language itself: every word we use has been used, enriched and nuanced by someone else before us. I take great comfort from the fact that all the words I use are older and wiser than I am, and I sometimes think it’s my task not so much to impose myself on the words that come to me as I start writing, as to welcome them, make them comfortable, listen to what they have to say, and ask them if there are other words,friends of theirs, who might like to join the party. My task as a poet, thinking of form and arranging lines and rhymes, is not so much that of a general imposing order as that of a genial host, arranging the places at a dinner party with a view to eliciting the best conversation from his guests. As usual I found that these thoughts and the words that went with them began to arrange themselves in the form of a poem, which I have called Hospitality. As this is a season in which many of us will be extending hospitality to friends and family, I thought it might be a good time to post it.
As always you can hear the poem by clicking on the title or the ‘play’ button
I turn a certain key within its wards,
Unlock my doors and set them open wide
To entertain a company of words.
Whilst some come early and with eager stride
Others must be enticed and coaxed a little,
The shy and rare, unused to company,
Who’ll need some time to feel at home and settle.
I bid them welcome all, I make them free
Of all that’s mine, and they are good to me,
I set them in the order they like best
And listen for their wisdom, try to learn
As each unfolds the other’s mystery.
And though we know each word is my free guest,
They sometimes leave a poem in return.
14 responses to “Entertaining Words: a sonnet about writing”
Marvellous – although sometimes words feel like enemies to be vanquished as well as guests to be welcomed!
Thanks yes, to extend the party analogy one has dometimes to deal with gatecrashers!
As a writer myself, this resonates deeply. Thanks, Malcolm. Always love your work.
Thanks Marcia glad it rang bells always good to know when other writers sense something similar
Sharing with other writer friends. Thanks.
Thanks so much. Just reD the Adam Kirsch review of Walcott you posted – very stimulating!
There is this idea that you must make it up all from scratch, or you are somehow lacking as an artist. Which is not how Shakespeare or Chaucer or Milton operated. We even see this in our ideas about plagiarism, which are far too broadly construed these days, when it comes to imaginative literature. There used to be a whole genre called imitations.
On the other hand, when you take something from a previous author, or use something traditional, you really do need to add your own twist to it. You can’t, for example, just repeat a bunch of traditional tropes and call it a poem. You have to invent off that inherited base.
Which is why I have been making a study of traditional symbolic systems. Mircea Eliade is really good on the general concepts. For particulars, James Jordan’s Through New Eyes is great on Biblical symbolism and I’ve also been enjoying Michael Pomedli on Ojibwe animal symbolism.. Many poems in those books.
Something also goes for characterization. Any good character starts out as something of a stereotype/archetype. There has to be some recognition, “Ah, I know the type.” But, again, you can’t stop there, because people aren’t just types, they’re also individuals. So, to be persuasive, you need to go beyond the stock type.
Thanks Burl. I very much agree wulithvall of that. We innovate with what we inherit!
That comment is full of wisdom. Thank you!
It’s funny, I’ve been thinking about the process and the whole ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’ syndrome a lot recently. Do you think it is the time of year that lends itself to this kind of reflection?
As well as the age and wisdom of words there is also the experience of them. I remember once hearing someone who had been a guest of Pope John Paul II at dinner saying that he has asked him about his poetry, knowing that Wojtila had written poetry as a younger man. “I no longer have the kind of experiences that I can write about,” he said.
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