I remember once, I'm not sure how old I was, wandering down a beach on the west of Scotland picking up pebbles. I was on a white pebble kick that day and dropped each brilliant specimen into my jacket pocket. When I got home I emptied them out onto the bunker (that's kitchen counter to the rest of the world) and there wasn't a white one in the lot. Oh, they were all whitish, off-white, peelie-wally-looking things, but gathered together they really weren't that pretty at all. They'd dried out and lost their gloss.
So, what do we learn from this? None of the pebbles had changed. They hadn't gone off or been discoloured by something in my pocket. I can't blame it on gamma rays in the atmosphere or anything. Gremlins didn't dip in and swap them over when I wasn't looking. It's simply that when taken out of their familiar environment and examined individually it's far easier to notice their flaws.
Think about when you've written a poem and you're still in the zone or whatever expression makes sense to you. That poem, at that time, is the best thing you've ever written. It's dripping with inspiration. You sit back and beam at it with pride. And then you stumble on it five or ten or thirty-five years later and you think, how the hell could I have written this crap? What must I have been thinking?
Before Kafka died, he gave instructions to his friend Max Brod to burn his writings. Brod thoughtfully saved the papers and assembled them for publication based on his own editorial judgements and the world breathed a sign of relief. Monica Jones wasn't quite so considerate and made sure Larkin's diaries were burned in accordance with his instructions after his death but she still hung onto a few other papers. Rudyard Kipling was another. He fiercely guarded his privacy but didn't leave anything to chance. He destroyed many of his own papers himself and, after his death, his wife and daughter deprived scholars of many more.
I've never binned any of my writings. I've certainly never burned them – there's something uncomfortably ritualistic about that. That said I chucked out all my paintings, all bar two that my wife kindly framed and which now grace our living room. Every piece of music I ever wrote – and there were a good few of those – ended up in a skip. All I have left is a cassette tape with one atypically jazzy piece on it and I'll be honest I'm not even sure where that is these days. Do I regret throwing them away? YOU HAVE NO IDEA. The only piece of writing I don't still have is the first poem I wrote when I was about nine, and I so wish I had it; it was in Scots and described a man's last few minutes leading up to his hanging. Blame the Burns they were force-feeding us at the time.
I was looking back on some of my early work and I came across this one. It's not the worse thing I've ever written – I have been responsible for some awful dross over the years – but I do remember how I felt after I wrote this. I was so full of myself. I mean we are talking bag of wind to the power of cocky:
a preoccupation with anti-heroes:
almost faithless voids and phantoms...
other trees struck by lightning,
impotent as daylight –
residues; threads forgotten.
unlearning... life-long friends –
who believe in words
but deny their meanings...
things burned out.
fugitives running from
their roots... (metaphysics)...
into blind alleys;
again in chains.
10 June 1978
To be fair, I'm probably not the best judge of this piece. But then I'm probably not the best judge of any of my work, especially the juvenilia. I'm wise enough to realise that a lot could be learned by laying my poems end to end. I'm not sure it's anything that couldn't be learned faster and easier some other way, though, and, to be honest, I only held onto the first 452 poems (contained within 4 hardback jotters bought from Woolworths) out of sentimentality. Two or three of them did make it into print but I wouldn't cry buckets if they were lost.
Actually most of my earliest work is quite readable, not very good, but you know what I'm on about. Then, after I left school and started to expose myself to the rest of the world of poetry, the Ezra Pounds and Basil Buntings, I started to think I was clever. (Now those are the kinds of cool names real poets should have). Thankfully that phase didn't last very long but it did produce 'Les Étrangers' (or 'Les Estrangers' as it's recorded in my note book).
Oh, and I haven't the remotest clue what it's about so make of it what you will. You can even like it if you must.
Words are precious. But who decides that they are? Did Max Brod do right by Kafka? No doubt his relatives thought so when the royalty cheques started rolling in, but does that make it right? I don't think it does. Of course Brod can argue that his friend was not in his right mind when he made that decision, but we only have his word for it.
Which brings me to my point. ("And about bloody time too!" cries the audience, "You're into the last paragraph.") I don't have hard copies of anything I've written on-line. I haven't saved copies on either of my computers or on disc. This is not because I don't think what I've said (what I'm saying right now, in fact) isn't worth saying (if it wasn't worth saying, I wouldn't say it), it's just not the stuff I want to live on after I'm gone. And that's my choice. These are my words. Not yours. I've no immediate plans to start deleting my archives but you never know. You never know. So, if there are some old blogs of mine you've never got round to, you might want to think about checking them out – or saving them all for posterity – while there's still time.