Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Return of the Muse: How Poetry Came Back to Me after Fifteen Years

Erato, Muse of Lyrical Poetry by Charles Meynier
I've been putting off writing my next blog entry – it was going to be about dancing in the lounge, a habit I've taken up this year, and I was reluctant to conjure images of myself cavorting around the room behind the closed venetians, arms flailing about, to the sound of 'Papa don't preach'. Now, thank the gods, I have something else to write about so you don't have to imagine that – instead you can picture me in a room full of drunkards, wannabes and has-beens, reading out my latest poetic gems on a bad microphone, legs shaking, head full of narcissistic enthusiasm.

After fifteen years lurking in the most obscure recesses of my unconscious, my muse has returned to the fold. And boy is she making up for lost time.

I wrote poetry in the 1990s, and even got a few of them published, but I never cracked the big journals. I was shadowed by the fact that a friend of mine was one of Australia's most significant poets. I followed her style religiously, as well as that of the poet I was writing my Masters thesis on, Frank O'Hara.

Then a few things happened. I met the love of my life, and spurned him. I studied editing and became a freelance editor. My brain became increasingly attuned to the nuances of prose, and I learned how to cut language short, to discipline and control long and waffly sentences. Somewhere along the way the tap of my poetry simply turned off. It was more or less gone. When I tried to write 'poetically' it came out as the most horribly strangled prose.

Now I look back at my earlier poetic 'career' and realise something very important. The immaturity that was a feature of my earlier life, and that I still battle, stymied my writing in ways I was completely unaware of. Already I am becoming a better poet than I was then, because I'm practising every single day and my mind is much more open to a wide range of influences.

Back then, the only poems that I ever finished were the ones that had tumbled out more or less whole, with only the need to edit – I did attend writing workshops and got great feedback from my poet friend, but I'm talking about fiddling around with something already more or less complete. There are many worthwhile ideas that come out as small fragments, or even different entities that you can combine. You have to morph these bits and pieces into poems by worrying at them, revisiting them like an anxious nurse, turning them over in your brain and letting your unconscious fill in the blanks. This is the kind of work I only did occasionally fifteen years ago. Who knows how many good ideas I threw away because they required digging, when all I knew how to do was pan for gold.

The other thing I didn't do then is read as obsessively and singlemindedly as I do now. Naturally when I was writing my thesis I read the higgledy-piggledy band of poets that influenced Frank O'Hara and that was certainly wide. And I was already familiar with the confessional poets – Plath and Lowell from school (who could forget Plath's 'Daddy' or lines of Lowell's like 'My mind's not right' ('Skunk hour') and 'Crows maunder on the petrified fairway' ('Waking in the blue')) and later Sexton. Yet I was a bit snobby and with some exceptions, poetry that wasn't surreal or postmodern enough didn't really interest me. Now I'm a happy mongrel and will read anything I think is any good.

I'm no poetic genius. That sounds if there was a possibility I could be but what I mean is I'm okay with that now. I'm okay with being one of the masses who has to slog away at something to get good at it, or just better. Perhaps that was another reason why my poetry stalled before stopping altogether – I didn't really understand how to apply myself, even though I read poetry a lot. I didn't know how to follow a thread of experience, or to trust my own perceptions. My poetry was shallow and playful because I couldn't express my own life, I couldn't be a witness to it.

And I'm already harvesting the fruits of slog. I can see a noticeable improvement in quality, sometimes from one poem to the next. I can read poems I was writing weeks ago, days ago, and see clearly that they just don't come up to scratch. But it's also clear that it was necessary to write them to reach the current stage. Even more strange, some of my recent, relatively strong poems bear cadences from weaker poems from fifteen years ago. Experiments are never wasted, because their lessons are unconsciously applied to later work. What alchemy! What magic!

The trick now is to keep that inner life alive while also ensuring the outer life is whole. Keep up exercise. Keep going to Grow. Keep trying to get more work. I have to stay in the world.

My major challenge: time. No longer can I waste it, yet poetry needs time for the brain to simply waft with no object or aim.

As I read the work of poets that I didn't have the patience or attention span to stay with a few years ago, the importance of reading beyond poetry becomes evident. Poets devour history, biography, the classics; they refer constantly to myth.

Yet this doesn't mean intellectual snobbery. Quite the opposite. Every perception has the potential to contribute to a poem. Nothing is wasted, therefore the attention must be on everything. Poets are not vague, romantic idiots. They observe the world keenly, sharply, with an eye for the finest of details. They are, of all things, journalists! Just much more careful journos than those you will find on the pages of broadsheets like The Guardian, because they identify and note what too often remains invisible and unexpressed.

Which reminds me – that newspaper, whose online version fell last year on the parched Australian media landscape like a cooling shower, recently published a very nasty little article pooh-poohing a poem by the much-maligned young Twilight star Kristen Stewart.

Okay, so the title is terrible and the first paragraph not much chop but there are some great lines in the rest of it. Damn the Guardian for being so snobbish and a tad misogynistic into the bargain (how dare a vacuous female Hollywood star believe she could write something decent!). But us poets had the last laugh – the poem got a much fairer assessment from Professor Brian Kim Stefans of UCLA, and being compared to Bernadette Mayer and Antonin Artaud is no mean feat. I'll concur with the professor's encouraging line 'I say go for it Ms. Stewart'. 


  1. Hey Catherine,

    Pleased to hear that "the muse, she hath returned." I grew to despise my own poetry so much, I think I must have sold my own muse into slavery :)

    As an aside, there's a study on mindfulness-based stress reduction being conducted through UNE. I thought that I would send you the link just in case you were interested in it. Here's the link to the study:

    I'm going to give it a go. Time for me rediscover my self-discipline ...

    All the best there,

  2. Hi Kate,

    I bet your poetry is much better than you think - it's the ones who think all their poetry is great that are the problem!

    Thanks for the link.- looks great - I'm about to start two weeks of intensive work so won't start it yet, but it looks as if it's flexible time-wise as it goes to December 2014.

    Hope all is well.

  3. My poetry is bull$hit,
    unless I take the pi$$ ...
    The holes in her are endless,
    Much like the cheese of Swiss ...

    I hope the intensive work period goes well. I've also been buckled down, getting my thesis proposal underway ...

    By the way, I went off Luvox about a month ago, cold turkey, but only from 50mg. I have no idea whether they are directly related ... But, since then, I quit my job of 6 years, and I have started to address my doubts/grievances about a few long-term friendships.

    I feel much like I felt when I was 25 (18 years ago) when I decided that the only thing I wanted to do was to leave my life here and travel alone overseas for an unfixed period ...

    Anyway, perhaps the current 'turmoil' is unrelated to potential Luvox withdrawals. Maybe, it's just that, after 12 months of intensive work and study, I finally surfaced (knowing that this would be the final deep breath til November) in order to make some desired changes to my life circumstances that I have had no time to address in the last year ...?

    Anyways ...

    I hope all is good there, Catherine.


  4. Hi Kate,

    Satiric poetry - perfect for the times : )

    Glad to hear of your stopping the Luvox and then making some big changes. Hope I don't sound overly analytical but I wonder if the two are related in a good way - ie perhaps you were ready to make the changes, so you went off the drug at the time that was right for you? I've come to see drugs as a tool that can be right for a certain period and then, suddenly, wrong. After I went off Luvox I had a sense that there was quite a bit of 'emotional housekeeping' to do because I'd been relatively numbed out - would be interested to know if you had a similar experience.

    The changes sound great - best of luck with the thesis proposal! It really feels like the year is gearing up workwise doesn't it? Intensive work is a good thing, but I always seem to have the need to beat myself up over small errors and editing decisions. Being an editor and having mild OCD are really not a great combination when you think about it : )

    Very interested to hear how it's all going post-Luvox. I think much less about going back on drugs now, but being on Luvox helped me through a difficult time.