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.
As we’ve discussed elsewhere, the poem’s opening line may be a subtle nod to Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. Oliver Tearle, ‘Underpass’.
Metromania’s religion: here you set
your epic’s opening, journeyman’s false start.
Now put the lines down, see just what you get:
chthonic forms the dead will come to write,
frustrated shadows of the never-yet.
This poem, from our founder-editor Dr Oliver Tearle, a poet and literary critic, acknowledges that all poetry-writing is about standing on the shoulders of giants.
The ‘chthonic forms’ of the dead helped Odysseus the ‘journeyman’ just as the ghosts of dead writers help the contemporary poet to express what he or she wishes to say. This densely layered and allusive poem carries notes with it (in the link provided above), acknowledging the difficulty of writing in the shadow of so many great poets.
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.
Image: Seamus Heaney in the studio with his portrait by Colin Davidson. Painted in 2013. Via Frankenthalerj on Wikimedia Commons.
Gary Snyder’s “Axe Handles.”
Check out the Yeats poem I posted for February. Definitely a love poem for writers.
(Shakespeare) Sonnet 77…
Thy glass will show thee how thy beauties wear,
Thy dial how thy precious minutes waste;
These vacant leaves thy mind’s imprint will bear,
And of this book, this learning mayst thou taste.
The wrinkles which thy glass will truly show
Of mouthed graves will give thee memory;
Thou by thy dial’s shady stealth mayst know
Time’s thievish progress to eternity.
Look what thy memory cannot contain,
Commit to these waste blanks, and thou shalt find
Those children nursed, deliver’d from thy brain,
To take a new acquaintance of thy mind.
These offices, so oft as thou wilt look,
Shall profit thee and much enrich thy book.