I wrote my first poem at the age of 15. It was a war poem depicting my experiences in the trenches during the first Battle of the Somme. Or, to be more accurate, distilling the experiences of a range of the First World War poets we were studying at the time and then filtering them onto the page via my attempts at jaded profundity within an ABAB rhyme scheme. Shortly after that I performed a similar service for the then very current Beat poets, distilling and then filtering onto the page their accounts of narcotics-fuelled road trips between New York City and San Francisco and the sexual marathons that took place both at either end and in transit. In these early poetic endeavours I was very fortunate to have the patient and forbearing support of my English teacher, the poet Brian Merrikin Hill. He would read these feverish creations carefully and manage through the elegantly tactful manipulation of his critiques to encourage me further whilst suggesting gently that I try to tackle themes a little closer to home.
There’s no doubt in my mind all these years on that without Brian’s gentle, tactful support at that time, my verse-making would have been limited to the hormone-driven years of adolescence. But beyond my own callow attempts at emulating the war poets and the Beats, Brian instilled in me and many of my contemporaries an enduring love of poetry and a recognition of its unique role in the deployment of language beyond all of its semantic and expressive limitations. Everything that I have written in the decades since my five years at Wennington School has sprung from an active taproot running back to that time.
Deriving from that period too is a sense of identity. In an unfussy, unpretentious way, Brian established the status of ‘poet’ as being as legitimate and substantive a self-ascribed status within the arts as ‘painter’ or ‘musician’ or ‘dancer’. For all that those nomenclatures carry with them a set of procedures and disciplines linked with specifically applied skills – the wielding of a paintbrush, the plying of a bow, the bending of the body around the dictates of a musical soundtrack – the fact that all that the poet wielded, plied or bent were the words that are accessible to all of us in no way limited or constrained the poet’s creative role and its potential achievements.
I have always seen these two acquisitions as gifts and I’ve cherished them as such. Their value to me and the particular resonance of that time and place were enhanced greatly in 1986 when I paid a visit to Brian Hill in his little bungalow on the Wennington School estate. Sadly, the school had closed 11 years earlier, but Brian and his family had security of tenure on the house. Before I called round I wandered through the two or three acres of mixed woodland contained within the school grounds and re-visited the three-story sandstone mansion that had housed the main part of the school. And I was, of course, subject to the nostalgia attendant on all such re-visitings. All the agonies of the teenage years notwithstanding, I had enjoyed my five years there and was conscious even as I rejected authority and embraced modish and pretentious rebellion that I was absorbing influences and energies that I would carry forward with me. Brian and I talked subsequently of those years and, generous again, he offered to read anything that might be upcoming in the poetry line.
That visit had the immediate and dynamic effect of coupling the continuing drive to write, manifest up to that point in a largely random and unfocussed form and style, with a new, refined sense of the coalescence of past and present; of the seamlessness of the junction between early emotional experience and the more evolved self. It’s from 1986 that I date the writing of the poetry that has, for me, approached most closely in the product the fulfilment of the process undertaken. And I perceive all of the work that has emerged between that time and up to 2015 as having, for all of its thematic or stylistic disparity, an underlying continuity of intention and purpose.
But it was in 2015 that I stopped writing poetry. I’d had fallow periods within the nearly 30 years between those two key dates. But during them I retained a constant sense of a conduit to the place of creativity remaining open. It was always more a case of the need to draw breath, to recharge the batteries that powered the familiar procedures that would draw a poem up from inchoate, pre-verbal form into language. And always that charge did build up and I each time resumed the process.
But somehow I knew from the start of this particular cessation of activity that it was qualitatively different. That conduit was closed; no current fed the batteries; not a phrase or a word floated into being. The silence was total and it consumed all the familiar territories within which a poem would grow from a nascent whisper to its final crafted form. And so it is now: I can read and recognise and appreciate, but I can’t write. I feel the loss more keenly than I can say. It’s like the dysphonia that robs the singer of the power to sing: I feel all the need, the urgency, to transform the winds and currents that still arise regularly into the form that once defined my creativity, but I can’t utter a note. I’ve tried all manner of strategies, either to re-open that conduit or to find a new route down to the old, familiar place, but I’m denied access.
Two activities help to dull the edge of the feeling of abandonment – teaching and music. The former absorbs time, provides a sense of purpose and allows for a level of generative activity. The latter caters – unstintingly so far, thank God – for the other area of creative activity that has sustained me through the years. But neither of them compensates for the withdrawal of the exclusively personal, self-contained creativity that’s afforded by poetry. Maybe it will return as unaccountably as it departed. But until that event (and how I have tried to avoid the upcoming loaded word with its overtones of circumstantial melodrama!) I have to sustain what amounts to a feeling of bereavement whereby my sense of self is irremediably damaged. Life goes on; laughter prevails; I get up in the morning and go to work with a will. But poetry – the writing of it, the sharing of it with fellow poets, the reading of it out loud – is conspicuous by its entire absence and I wish daily that this were not the case.