by Simon Jenner
Why I Write
Declaration for the Royal Literary Fund Fellowship statement
Poetry asks too much of language; it’s why language evolves. The intolerable neural itch, as Auden put it of something else, is usually true of poets. In my own case, the immemorial need to make a record of a freak occurrence of words that rather often disturb me; and to pattern them out into whatever meaning they have. It is that knapping of flint, the making impulse. In other words, a push of language in a novel, if not original form as it sometimes is, or a complex of words, demands audience and recording. It then demands its flourishing, in an intensive structure that holds it rather like one of those Alum or Copper Sulphate crystals we held at school. Or like the Potassium in oils you never allowed contact with air or water.
It’s between that immanence and its sometimes disappointing purple flash of fulfilment, that poetry tries to live. The end can be desiccated, forced, or misshapen, but it’s still evidence of a process, and unlike chemical ones, can be revisited. In another sense, the moment before a line of poetry comes to me, I can hear an immense chattering possibility, and on the other side, silence. The spark between, like Michelangelo’s God’s finger charging Adam’s, is where poetry jerks into its uneasy life. Adam or Frankenstein’s Monster. This might correspond to the right and left sides of the brain, or simply be my own mind’ s tidy self-categorization. I observed – or more truly heard – it right at the start of my writing life, in March 1981. It still holds in the background.
If an obsessional need to renew or to record the freshness of language exists, then it comes from several impulses. To record a permanence in fleeting lost communications; poetry owns a complex of these, a cat’s-cradle of linguistic nerve-ends. To render one’s own register permanent, and realize its uniqueness like a DNA strand, more obviously to extend that strand in a poem.
More importantly this parenting of word bundles, signalling the need to communicate, is overtaken I feel: by a delight in apprehension and feeling. A sensory tool of language evolves into something more inclusive. Though this dilutes the initial bundle of impulses that make up that complex of words, in wanting something of universal feeling, thought, argument, and with poetry, a kind of beauty or aesthetic delight, satisfaction at form and function, comes together. The impulse is made generous. It wants to include others and to share. The poetry that stays is also human, and has passed through the enriching gases of whatever it means to delight in and love. The filament intensifies in the rare gases. Or glows with a generosity that has got beyond itself.
The poet and critic Andrew Duncan once suggested to me that poetry originates in a learning of language, and like all immature functions – squirrels chasing their tails – is meant to take us up to speed in acquiring our key skill. ‘Do I believe this? Like fuck I do’, he then added. Still, it’s why perhaps early poetic careers are more linguistically-self-delighting, and later on can become more diffuse. And it’s why sometimes impulse and capacity can dissipate. There needs to be vigilance, too, a pay-off of humanity and the poetic impulse. Each poet needs to ask: Is fighting to keep the impulse worth it? Is dissipating it a dissolution? Should I remain in one spark of me a delighted adolescent? Is the obverse senescence? A lonely impulse of delight, a shapen glinted thing that keeps its edge however long buried, and shares its capacity for making a feast forever. The urge for something beautiful to remain as unique record and celebration, muralled on a cave wall or fresco or raised on a London plinth. And more. The travelling of language, and in particular poetry, moves from selfish impulse to feeling. From lust to love. As Mario Petrucci said, of the exchange of poetry and science: ‘There must be babies.’