‘It is occasionally possible, just for brief moments, to find the words that will unlock the doors of all those many mansions in the head and express something – perhaps not much, just something – of the crush of information that presses in on us from the way a crow flies over and the way a man walks and the look of a street and from what we did one day a dozen years ago. Words that will express something of the deep complexity that makes us precisely the way we are.’
-Ted Hughes, Poetry in the Making
Dear Mr Hughes,
Hopefully, you don’t mind being jolted from your slumber. Through some twist of fate, I am writing letters to dead poets. By “dead”, I don’t mean to infer that you no longer exist. It was just an idea I had after reading Rilke’s Letters to A Young Poet. Kahlil Gibran wanted me to clarify that:
“I am alive like you, and I am standing beside you. Close your eyes and look around, you will see me in front of you.”
Writing these letters hasn’t been as easy as I thought. I’ve never fumbled around so much trying to write a simple letter before. While the concept was a flash of inspiration straight from the muse, getting them done has been much harder than expected. Indeed, this journey is taking me straight up the mountain via a goat’s trail and I’m left stonkered beside the path waiting for my brain to catch up. Ouch! I’m not even half-way.
Even a kid in single digits knows you write about what you know. That’s the ABC of writing. However, I barely know you at all. So, writing you a letter must be tantamount to heresy.
That being the case, why have I written to you? Why not write to someone else I’ve known for awhile?
Well, I’ve observed that we also write about what we’d like to find out, in pursuit of the question, taking our readers on a thrilling, exhilarating ride. Personally, that sounds much more riveting than being bored by a know-it-all.
So, this letter is just the beginning of a beautiful friendship! After all, just because we didn’t go to school together, we can still be friends. Spread our wings!
So, while there are people who know your work inside out, I’m the new kid on the block. Indeed, I only stumbled across your poetry recently after reading Max Porter’s poignant novel: Grief is the Thing With Feathers. Your friend Crow turns up in the story to comfort a grieving family after the wife/mother passed away.
Crow realized God loved him-
Otherwise, he would have dropped dead.
So that was proved.
Crow reclined, marvelling, on his heart-beat.
And he realized that God spoke Crow-
Just existing was His revelation.
But what Loved the stones and spoke stone?
They seemed to exist too.
And what spoke that strange silence
After his clamour of caws faded?
And what loved the shot-pellets
That dribbled from those strung-up mummifying crows?
What spoke the silence of lead?
Crow realized there were two Gods-
One of them much bigger than the other
Loving his enemies
And having all the weapons.
Then, I found out your incredible losses. I can not begin to imagine what you’ve been through!
Anyway, I’m sure you know all about the awkwardness of the blank page. Indeed, I stumbled across The Thought Fox tonight:
The Thought Fox
I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Besides the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
The thing is that if we all just stay in our comfort zones being experts of what we know, we’d never grow. Rather, we need to take those cautious, tentative steps out of the nest to explore The Road Not Taken before we stagnate.
So, this changes the perspective. Getting to know you, is a sign of growth and it’s quite alright to acknowledge that we’ve only just met. That this is the beginning. After all, we’re not all going to be old friends who went to school together. Indeed, we’re spread our wings.
Actually, through writing these letters to dead poets, I’ve actually come to appreciate how little I really knew about the poets I’d always supposedly known. Indeed, I’ve almost felt consumed by my own ignorance wondering how on earth I could possibly pull of each letter and yet it’s happened. I’m really coming to appreciate that being inspired by a poem, is but the tip of a huge iceberg. There’s so much more.
However, when it came to getting to know you, your personal life had actually preceded your poetry. At least, I’d heard about the tragic aftermath of your relationship with Sylvia Plath. I wasn’t going to mention Sylvia at all. No doubt,you don’t want to be tied to her for eternity, especially when you’d gone your separate ways in life. I get that. At the same time, I wonder how you survived it all. How you kept going? So many other poets never made it to the other side of the rainbow but you did.
Sylvia Plath isn’t the only poet who has taken her life. I am becoming more and more conscious that poets are an endangered species. Even just looking at my small selection of dead poets, the stats aren’t looking good. Severe depression is almost in our DNA…not that I’m depressed myself.
This troubles me…the mental health issues of being a poet, a writer, a creative soul. Why is it that so many of us go over the edge? Does our flame burn so bright, that we somehow combust? Or, does our writing spring from some subterranean pond…a pool of tears? That only the sad, depressed and broken need apply?
As I said, that troubles me because I don’t want to press all the wrong buttons and start dancing on the wrong side of the edge myself. I have fought tooth and nail with everything I’ve got to survive and be here with my family. Live my life. Carpe Diem seize the day. As much as writing is breathing to me, I don’t want to blow myself up in the process.
Moreover, as writers, I have a very strong conviction that we also need to look after each other. After all, if one of our own falls down beside the road, don’t we need to be the Good Samaritan and help them up? Quite frankly, once you know the pitfalls of being a writer, you have to stop and look out for your colleagues. Band together. That should be written in our charter.
Indeed, I would argue that saving a life is far more important than giving birth to a book and getting it published, as much as I’ve dreamed, striven and worked the very hard yards and pray I’ll get there soon. When one of your own is hurting, you need to respond and not just stick your head in a screen.
Mind you, that’s all well and good in theory but when you’re in the zone, the rest of the world can disappear. You’re just left hammering out those words, going with the flow like a person possessed. Indeed, perhaps you are. This can obviously make it a little hard to live up to your social conscience when you’re off somewhere with the muse and not in touch.
That’s well and truly me at the moment and I’m just trying to get from day to day through these letters of the alphabet without completely pissing off my husband and the kids. Even the dogs aren’t real impressed. I know we writers have to balance writing with reality but when inspiration hits and it’s all consuming, I’m even reluctant to pause in case it runs away. Inspiration can seemingly be so fickle that if you give it the cold shoulder for even an instant, it could well desert you. Find someone else! Once again, your book project bites the dust.
Anyway, as I said before, this is just the beginning and I am really thankful for this opportunity to meet. Here’s to new friends!
Photo: Rowena Newton & Mr J.