on things being hard

11 May, 2010

Argh, I’m getting behind with everything (again), and aware that I’ve missed my last three posting days. Bank holiday Monday, a broken laptop and general busyness put paid to last week, but I have no excuse for missing yesterday really.

Following my last post about how hard it is to look big problems in the eye I’ve been thinking quite a bit about things being hard, and how they are hard, and why. The weekend before last I went to a very interesting talk with Archbishop Rowan Williams (himself a poet and literary critic) and the poet Ruth Padel, on the relationship between poetry and prayer. Both Padel and Williams kept returning to the thought that language is not easy, and that in fact it gets continually harder the further you go both in poetry and in prayer. Padel talked about the need to discipline yourself to ‘resist the easy’, and Williams elaborated on this in talking about how the Welsh medieval poets deliberately made things incredibly hard for themselves. (I remember my tutor in the first term here saying something similar to me: that I needed to set myself firm limits that I could attack intelligently; if in doubt, impose a demanding regime on yourself. Certainly I found writing last term’s villanelle, as tortuous as it was, incredibly fruitful.)

The point of making things hard for yourself, according to Williams, is that in doing so you find out the things you didn’t know you already knew. There’s something about forcing yourself into a very strict mode that allows truth to surface. It all sounds ridiculously paradoxical and I probably would have scoffed a year or so ago, but I’m now definitely with whoever it was who said ‘I don’t know what I want to say until I’ve said it’. Again and again both in writing and in workshops it’s been the mysterious, hidden things that have slowly emerged from all the sifting and shaping that have most life – never what you thought you were sitting down to write. And as with poetry, so with prayer: you can’t come to it with a fixed agenda. Instead you need to learn to be quiet, to listen, so that the connections can come through.

(And this is all chiming with what the fantastic Robin Robertson said in his q&a with us the other month – about how all creativity is essentially an act of curiosity, of wanting to find out. I’ve just realised that’s something else I’ve never posted about; he was brilliant. Go and read The Wrecking Light.)

So, in poetry, and in prayer, the suggestion is: make things difficult for yourself. Shut up. And listen. It’s about learning to live in expectancy, to have the capacity to sit still and not have everything resolved straight away – Keats’s theory of negative capability. I guess this is one of the most important things that poetry has to offer.

And that too, according to Williams, is part of the difficulty of poetry in an image-based culture; we’re so used to understanding something instantly and then moving on. But poetry resists that: it teaches us the hardness of having to wait. There are things that it just takes time to understand. (And this in turn reminds me of what Don Paterson said about poetry being essentially about the art of re-reading.) The Bible, for example: it isn’t something you can ever say you’ve read for the last time.

Ultimately it is the hardness of things that gives them their value, and this is connected with the necessity of approaching things side-on. We can’t look at them (as we can’t look at God) directly. We have to tiptoe around them, using paradox and metaphor as we circle closer. But there always is this circling closer – a simultaneous struggling and yearning towards that terrible beauty. And this gets right to the heart of it, for me. I resist poetry, as I do prayer, because they are just so hard. But they are hard precisely because they are important, precisely because they are so beautiful. And terrible. And exacting.

I’m not sure I’m making sense any more, so I’ll move swiftly on, to a talk that one of our tutors gave last week. She too had a lot to say about the difficulty of writing, echoing Padel in talking about the need to resist the things that charm you, and Williams in describing a poetic process that takes a long time to find out what is actually trying to be said. Best of all (for me) was when she said this: ‘I feel terrible when I’m not writing and I mainly feel terrible when I’m writing too, because I’m struggling with something.’

So I’m going to let go of this worry that I’m too preoccupied with writing being so annoyingly hard. It just is, and that’s sort of the point.

Apologies for a bit of a long and rambly post. Normal service will be resumed later on this week.

This post brought to you by a large helping of frustration, disappointment with the political situation, a loaned laptop courtesy of my wonderful dad, an enormous sleep-debt and a large g&t. Cheers.

4 Responses to “on things being hard”

  1. Ruth said

    Just a quick comment to say how much I enjoy reading your blog and following your progress. I don’t think this post really rambles, and it is all rather fascinating. I liked it, as I have many of your others, very much indeed. Good luck with the sleep debt. r

  2. […] me…) And it reminds me of the connections between poetry and prayer that I wrote about in my last post… perhaps it’s about moving away from the ego to some degree? Anyway it’s […]

  3. […] this quote, drawing the analogy between poetry and prayer that I’ve written a little about before: A poem is a part of the functioning and the gesturing of the words we use every day, but it is […]

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