The best poems about the act of writing, selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Writing poetry can be intensely rewarding, but unfortunately, the words don’t always come. And at some point or another, most poets have found themselves in the grip of writer’s block (something we’ve termed colygraphia, because let’s face it, it’s never going to be taken seriously until it has a Greek name). The following five poems are all about the struggle to write a poem; they are among the best poems about the actual act of writing poetry.
Sir Philip Sidney, ‘Loving in Truth’. This poem, which opens Sidney’s 1580s sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella – the first substantial sonnet sequence written in English – sets up the cycle of poems which follows. We find Sidney seated at his desk, chewing his quill, trying to find the right words to convey the pain of unrequited love he is feeling (the love which the sequence as a whole wonderfully chronicles). The conclusion he comes to is breathtakingly simple and has resonated with writers throughout the ages.
Ted Hughes, ‘The Thought-Fox’. One of the most celebrated poetic accounts of the act of writing poetry, or rather, more accurately, waiting for the arrival of poetic inspiration, ‘The Thought-Fox’ is one of Ted Hughes’s best-loved poems. As we’ve discussed elsewhere, the poem’s opening line may be a subtle nod to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’.
Seamus Heaney, ‘Digging’. ‘Digging’ is about a poet-son’s relationship with his father and the sense that the working-class son, by choosing the vocation of the poet, is adopting a path very different from his father’s, and his father’s before him. Heaney resolves to use his pen as his digging implement, and to perform a different kind of excavation from that practised by his forefathers.
Carol Ann Duffy, ‘The Love Poem’. This poem appeared in Duffy’s 2005 volume Rapture, and is a poem about the difficulty of writing a love poem. Duffy explores this difficulty – the notion that ‘everything has already been said by everybody else’ – by quoting snippets from famous love poems from ages past, such as those by John Donne, William Shakespeare, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Jane Kenyon, ‘Not Writing’. Jane Kenyon (1947-95) was an American poet whose work evinces a spare, pared back style. This sparse style works particularly well in ‘Not Writing’, Kenyon’s short poem about writer’s block. We love the way ‘papery nest’ makes us want to read ‘eaves’ as ‘leaves’ in this delicate, finely worded poem.
That concludes our pick of five great poems about writing, or not writing – poems about writer’s block, struggling to sit down and write a poem. Are there any classics we’ve missed off our list?
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.