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.
1. Sir Philip Sidney, ‘Loving in Truth’.
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe;
Studying inventions fine her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburn’d brain …
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). Sidney says that he made the mistake of studying other writers’ words and trying to emulate them in order ‘to paint the blackest face of woe’. Sidney then creates a somewhat unusual ‘family’ whereby Invention (i.e. the poet’s creativity) is the child of Nature (Mother Nature, of course), but Invention is being governed here not by his natural mother, Nature, but by his stepmother or ‘step-dame’, Study.
The conclusion he comes to is breathtakingly simple and has resonated with writers throughout the ages.
2. 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.
Curiously, the poem had its origins in one of the most significant events of Hughes’s young life. While he was studying English at the University of Cambridge, Hughes found that studying poetry was having a deleterious effect on his own poetry: he was writing virtually no new poetry, because he felt suffocated by the ‘terrible, suffocating, maternal octopus’ of literary tradition.
But it was another animal, the fox, that made up Hughes’s mind for him. While trying to work on a literary-critical essay for his degree, Hughes retired to bed at 2am, having been unable to write the essay. That night, he had a dream that a large fox walked into his room, its eyes filled with pain. It came up to his desk, laid a bleeding hand on the blank page where Hughes had tried and failed to write his essay, and said: ‘Stop this – you are destroying us.’ Hughes, who had a lifelong interest in portents, took this as a sign. In his third year, he transferred from English to anthropology and archaeology – and his poetry-writing took off again. This story probably provided Hughes with the genesis for ‘The Thought-Fox’ – a poem in which Hughes struggles, not to write an analysis of a poem, but the poem itself.
3. 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.
The poem’s structure is significant not least in the fact that it almost goes full-circle: Heaney begins with the pen in his hand, ‘snug as a gun’ – a suggestive simile, especially given the complementarity of ‘snug’ and the word it spells when reversed, ‘guns’. A gun is a weapon associated with ‘manly’ ideas of war (however misguidedly); a spade is associated with honest manual labour, such as that performed by the poet’s father and grandfather. But the pen is, by comparison, no weapon – yes, as the proverb has it, the pen is mightier than the sword (or the gun or the spade).
Yet Heaney rejects this phrase at the end of the poem, replacing the formation ‘snug as a gun’ with a simple declarative sentence, which, unlike the opening of the poem, is set apart on its own line, inviting a pause (and giving us pause for thought?) before he decides, ‘I’ll dig with it.’ The final three words in this four-word declaration of semi-independence proclaim themselves in blunt and direct monosyllables, each one using the flat ‘i’ sound to suggest a no-nonsense approach to the art of writing poetry that will enable Heaney to remain true to his origins. The pen goes from being ‘snug’ (albeit dangerously so, like a gun) to being a tool or implement comparable in hearty usefulness and labour to the spades used by his father and forefathers.
4. 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.
‘The Love Poem’ shows that Duffy is aware of the rich tradition of love-poem sequences in English literature: it is a poem that feels the weight of these former masters – Shakespeare, Sidney, Donne, Shelley, Barrett Browning – and finds it difficult to write a love poem that won’t sound like a bad pastiche or copy of these literary greats. ‘I love you’, as Jacques Derrida was fond of pointing out, is always a quotation.
We have analysed this poem here.
5. 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.