I began writing poetry, completely unexpectedly, in September 1999 while recovering from an illness. I attempt to write for at least three hours a day on the basis of Mark Twain’s dictum that ‘most inspiration comes from the application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair’. A Fleet Street journalist has observed that I write ‘like a man obsessed’: perhaps I am subconsciously attempting to make up for lost time? I constantly make notes, having discovered that if a promising line or subject arrives in my head, it is necessary for me to reduce it to writing immediately – delay can be fatal to its recovery.
Sometimes I write poetry directly onto one of my computers. There are eleven of these elderly dinosaurs scattered about the world in various summerhouses, cottages, offices, apartments, barns and bolt-holes. There does not appear to be any difference, for me at least, in the quality of poems created on a computer compared with those begun on paper. All my poems (1,101 of them as I write) are stored in a primitive database. When I’m done with a poem, I squirrel it away and try not refer to it for a year or two, revising only to make selections for a new book or when preparing for a poetry tour. I try to keep in mind the wry observation of an earlier poet who said that no poem is ever really ‘completed’; it is merely abandoned by its author.
At other times, I get stuck. Either I cannot write anything worthwhile or I suspect that the form or meter I am wrestling with has usurped the poem’s original raison d’être. Should this occur, I force myself to abandon the blighter and bang it into a folder marked ‘Poems In Progress’. In the early days I tended to soldier on, which often led to second-rate work. Other writers have helped me to come to understand that structure is merely a vessel, not the wine, and that spoiled wine in a fancy decanter is vinegar by any other name. Nor is the degree of my absorption in any piece of writing a true guide. A bad poem, or one merely strong in the weak places, is still a bad poem, no matter what the cost in labour of its birth pains. Some of my best poems arrive effortlessly; others are the result of months of blood, sweat and tears. There appears to be (forgive the pun) no rhyme or reason to it.
Audience reaction plays a part in the selection of poems for a new book. While no single audience is infallible, their sustained, collective view is very nearly so, in my experience. An extensive selection of my poetry, written and recorded, can be found on www.felixdennis.com including some yet to be published in book form.
Visitors to the site are encouraged to leave any comments they may wish to make.
Possibly because I write in traditional forms loathed by the druids-in-residence of modern poetry and perhaps because I no longer starve in a garret, my coming-out as a poet was greeted with venomous derision by one or two of Grub Street’s more rarefied flowers. I fared better elsewhere: Michael Boyd, Creative Director of the RSC; the late Robert Woof at the Wordsworth Trust; presenter and author, Melvyn Bragg and US novelist and critic, Tom Wolfe, all encouraged me to continue.
I am very, very grateful to them. Early encouragement from the right quarter is a priceless gift.
"In response to questions I’m often asked at poetry readings, I offer the following apologia. Readers may wish to bear in mind Christopher Morley’s definition of poets as ‘those with the courage to leave ajar the door to madness"
— Felix Dennis, A Note On Poems
My advice to aspiring poets, then, is: keep writing, listen to constructive criticism and ignore the rest. Try, too, to find an editor you trust and respect. Difficult, I know: the likes of Simon Rae do not grow on trees. And buy yourself a copy of Stephen Fry’s ‘The Ode Less Travelled’– easily the most humane, witty and helpful book on prosody in print.
A question I am frequently confronted with concerns intent. Do I write poetry to be performed, to be recorded, or to sit quietly on the page? As anyone familiar with the subject will confirm, some of our finest poets are, or were, very poor readers of their own work. (To test this, visit the wonderful website created by Richard Carrington and Andrew Motion, www.poetryarchive.org which features, alongside much else, historical recordings by outstanding poets.) Even so, poetry, in essence, is an oral art, a form of song older by far than written prose. Rhyme and meter developed partly as a mnemonic device, enabling elders to instruct as well as to entertain tribal members for countless generations– long, long before the first hieroglyphs were scratched on rock or bark. (See ‘Thoth’s Gift’ on page 208.)
The answer, then, is that I write poetry to be read aloud while knowing that most readers, indeed, the majority of readers, will not follow suit; knowing, too,that only a small percentage will ever attend one of my readings. Instead, my publishers include a free audio CD with my books. Having heard actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company reading my poetry on stage, I am aware that I have neither the talent nor training to match them. Even so, working with George Taylor and Dan Gable, I sit in a studio three or four times a year recording most poems I write. These recordings appear in the audio CDs found in my books, on my own website and others, on the special audio books created by libraries for the blind and on radio programmes like BBC Radio 4’s ‘Poetry Please’.
Does it all matter? Three years ago a woman came up to me after a poetry reading. She was crying softly. As I signed her book, she kept saying: ‘How could you know? How could you know? You are not a mother. How could you know?’ She squeezed my shoulder as her husband led her away into the night.
So, yes. It bloody well does matter– to me and to her, at least.
While it is idle for authors to feign total indifference to applause or brickbats, as any history of literary criticism will show, all in all, I am convinced that I write mainly for myself. I know that I would continue to write verse if no other soul in the world expressed interest. I write to discover who I am, to escape the carapace inherited from a life spent earning filthy lucre, to stave off a predilection for other addictions and, primarily, to experience the sheer joy of weaving words to shape ideas. As a somewhat noisome beast, perhaps I should have inflicted my verse making onto an unsuspecting world anonymously, using a nom de plume. (This was the very advice I received from well-meaning friends.) But to have done so would have deprived me of the pleasure of performing my work in public.
I can recall the astonishment and barely concealed glee at the announcement my first British poetry reading in London’s West End. ‘He’s doing what? Lord, oh Lord what an ass! We have to go. It should be hilarious.’ And it is true that the room was packed to gills with salivating non-believers. Coming out as a poet is not for the faint of heart. Poetry in the modern world is not for wimps.
But just as the levels of concentration and time required are scarcely comprehensible to the uninitiated, so, too, are the rewards. The warm glow of satisfaction when an obdurate stanza shyly emerges after hours spent pummeling it in mumbling silence is matched only by the adrenaline rush and exhilaration of catching an audience by the throat with it months later. The making of money can be absorbing,
fun even; but it cannot hold a candle to the risk / reward ratio involved in writing and performing.
As Lord Chesterton remarked: ‘It is hell to write but heaven to have written.’ Amen to that, would say most writers. Why, then, do we continue to descend into the depths of Chesterton’s hell? For some, like Dr. Johnson, the answer might be ‘to make a living’: (not that I believe him for a minute). For others, ‘to make a reputation’ or simply, ‘because I can’.
For me, it is the result of a chance discovery made nine years ago in a hospital bed: that the flame of poetry cauterizes the wound of life as nothing else can.