Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

1001 poems

Click on image to enlarge

I've never been one for anniversaries, for looking back, peering over the top of the pink-tinted glasses, sighing in an affected manner and wishing I'd done things even a little differently. Perhaps that's come about because I find I have more regrets than whatever the opposite of 'regrets' is. I guess I don't know that one because I don't get to use it very often. That said I've always imagined myself in my old age shuffling out of the dark, like Krapp (but without the unfashionable pointy white shoes), thumbing through my great big volume of poems and wallowing in some scrap of mediocre love poetry. And it is a great big volume of poetry, a four-ring, A4 binder three inches thick. If I were to hit you over the head with it it'd do you some serious damage.

I started the volume in 1977 with my 453rd poem, my first 'adult' poem, 'adult' as in grownup not risqué, and in July 2008 I finally reached no. 1000. Thirty-one years to write 547 poems. Yay me. I have no idea if that's good or what. The thing is, when you look back, there are actually several years when I wrote nothing or next-to-nothing. I printed them into a graph, the graph you'll find at the top of this blog, and you'll see … well I'm not actually sure what you'll see or what it proves. That is what it is.

What I can say is that the poems written in 1991 really belong to earlier years. Being unable to write I went back to my notebooks and tidied up a few poems to try and get my juices flowing but the real truth is that I didn’t have two poetic ideas to rub together between 1990 and 1993 inclusive. I really thought that was me, done, finito. It was in 1993 I wrote Living with the Truth, again just something to do to try and get started again. Who in their right mind would deliberately sit down to write a novel after a) such a long dry spell and b) never having written anything bar poetry since he was a kid?

I like my red folder. I didn't mention before but it's red, not quite fire-engine red but in that ballpark. Amazingly the spine hasn't broken nor has the metal thing with the rings come off. I like picking it up to put in a new poem; it has heft. I like writing a new poem. You'd think by now that it would be no big deal but there are some things in life that are as good now as when I was a kid: I still get a kick out of lightning storms and chippy chips; never had them both at the same time though.

I always dreamed of getting to 1000 poems. I'm not sure what I expected to find or feel when I got here. No, 'dream' is too strong a word. I didn't dream about writing poem no. 1000. I just kept writing. There were times in 'the wilderness years' when I never thought I'd make it but I suppose that's the thing about the future, you have no idea what's going to happen. I'm convinced my current novel is going to be the one to get the better of me but then I was pretty damn sure I'd never finish the last one and don't get me started on the one before that. God Almighty!

I wrote a thousand poems. What does that say about me? What is it about us that demands that things mean something? I'm a poet, I really should be able to answer that one. I've spent my entire life looking for meaning in the oddest places even down the back of the settee. A lot of people think poetry is a waste of time. I've certainly wasted a lot of my time writing poems. Well, when you do the sums, actually not that much time at all; I'll have spent more time peeing. All of which was going though my mind when I actually sat down and wrote my one-thousandth poem.

In fact my last few poems have all been about the nature of poetry. I've been doing this for donkey's years and what exactly have I been doing? Is poetry a waste of time? Have I wasted my time being a poet? I decided to write about it:


The function of
this poem is
to use up time.
There is no more.

You should leave now.
It will do you
no good to stay.

I have captured
your time in this
poem. It is
now lost to you.

You should leave now.
It will do you
no good to stay.

This is my sole
function. It is
not open to

You should leave now.
It will do you
no good to stay.

I cannot be
more than you see.
I cannot add
meaning to loss.

You should leave now.
It will do you
no good to stay.

You should leave now.
It will do you
no good to stay.

Friday, 11 July 2008

So what do you do once you've written a thousand poems? You just keep going. There's nowhere else to go. The thing is now I've got that out of my system where now? Two thousand? Yeah, right. One thousand four hundred and fifty-three – a thousand grow-up poems – that might be do-able. When I was a teenager I used to look forward to reaching benchmarks, 18, 21, 30 even 40 but since then I'm not looked forward quite so much and certainly not with any great enthusiasm:

FAILING           1001

My mother taught me
           how to be old.
I watched her falter
           then fail and fall.

At least she tried to
           teach me but what
           did I care to know
           about such things?

Now I'm old myself
           I wish I'd paid
           attention; I'm not
           sure I ache right.

I am sure she'd have
           something to say
           about my limp, how
           I hold my hip

           and her 'stupid cough'
           I can't get right.
I must be such a

Saturday, 02 August 2008

Sad git getting ain't I? And, for the record, I don't have a bad hip and a 'stupid cough'. My mother had both and it was her that called her cough 'stupid', not me. I have developed a bit of a limp though recently; haven't quite got it mastered yet.

Of course there are writers who at my age had written more but I've also written more than some writers did ever, Larkin, for example. Quantity is not everything. That said, none of us knows how long we've got. I'm not so sure if I'd taken a different path I'd have written any more than I have. I'd likely be better known and have more stuff in print but I can catch up there. I've never stopped writing. Correction, I've never stopped being a writer. The chart shows that there have been times when I've been unable to write but life made a lot less sense at those times.

Who am I kidding … life's never made any sense and Christ knows if any of my poems do. (Please feel free to rush to my defence at this point and do try to form an orderly queue).

Was a thousand poems a goal or a dream? I think if it had mattered to me it could fit under either heading and I could present a convincing argument. The fact is, it was not something I worked towards. If anything it was an obstacle to overcome.

I looked up "writer goals" on Google as, as you would expect, I got millions of hits but I picked this one almost at random:

1. Set goals: Let's face it, goal setting has a bad rap in our culture. It's linked with New Year's resolutions, diets and promises made to our mothers - in other words, hard to follow, easy to break. Another way to fail.

But we all need a measuring stick - a way to check in with ourselves and take honest stock of what we've done and what we plan to do next. If you think back on the main accomplishments of your life, they were probably begun with a specific plan and a systematic method that lead to completion. Write down your goals and make them realistic, measurable and concrete. Commit to big, ambitious, five-year goals and practical, doable goals such as tidying your desk every night. Once you've committed to your goals, post them in places where you'll see them often. – Five must-dos for every writer

I'm not sure that I agree with all of this but I've never been fond of the whole motivational speaker thing. I think if I had a list of targets, or even a target I'd actually be discouraged. The target would become my reason for writing whereas I've always seen writing as its own end. Okay, when I'm working on a novel. I do check the word count obsessively but I'm always looking back at what I've done. I never sit down and say I have to write a thousand words today or even five hundred. I might reach that target and say to myself, well, that's me done my allotted writing today. And that's not how I write. I can only imagine the depression I could sink into if I attempted NaNoWriMo. Just the thought of it is depressing and I need no help in that direction.

Do I have a goal right now? Yes, several. I need to be better at keeping up with my submissions. I need to find time to read more. I need to make time to do a final edit of Stranger than Fiction. I need to keep up with my schedule for blogging. And I need to finish my current novel. And I need not to get down when I don't get everything done because I'm simply not in control of every aspect of my life. Some of these are ongoing goals; others will get closed off and replaced by other tasks. But I don't have dates and quantities attached to any of these. Really most of these are things I keep at the forefront of my mind, things not to forget rather than goals or targets in any formal sense.

Of course everyone is different but I think what I'm saying is that, if you keep working steadily (yes, I suppose that could be regarded as a goal in itself) you will accumulate a substantial amount of work in time. As for whether you're granted that time… Ah, that none of us knows.


Rachel Fox said...

Opposite of 'regrets'...triumphs?


Jim Murdoch said...

Triumph of really an antonym of failure not regret. Thanks anyway, Rachel. I tried a couple of online antonym finders and they came up blank. Stupid computers.

Anonymous said...

Blimey, Jim! 1,000 poems! They'd have to clock my mileomemter twice over to get the tally up to 1,000. Mine generally emerge with all the fluidity of blood from stone. No danger of concussion from my ring binder!

I like 'The Lowest Common Denominator' very much. Has that been/is it about to be submitted?

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this Jim, and the poems too. I am sure that among 1001 poems of yours there are at least 200 of an extraordinary brilliance.
About quantity - It amazes me how different are the approaches that the writers are using. My good friend just have published a novel in Zagreb for a very respectful publisher. He said that he was drinking enormous amounts of Red Bull in order to finish it, also he had deprived himself from many aspects of social life. And it was worth it definitely.

Jim Murdoch said...

Ah, Dick, but so many of them were crap. And the plastic wallets help with the heft. Think about it too, it took me about four years to write my first 500 and thirty years to complete the next 500. I'm glad you liked 'The Lowest Common Denominator', it's one I'm quite pleased with I have to say. And, yes, it is out somewhere at the moment.

And, Jasko, nah, I think I might have a couple that get somewhere near extraordinary brilliance, most are simply serviceable poems like the two above. Poetry has got too clever for its own good and it needs to calm down and make friends with its audience again. I want to be read not to show how clever I am. The thing about brilliance is that it dazzles your audience and they look away. I'm not interested in that.

Rachel Fox said...

Yes, well...failure and regret are often linked...failure to do something, to take a chance, to think about repercussions, to consider everything and everyone...isn't that what makes regret..?

But back to your subject. I have 252 poems in four different files...different coloured plastic display type ones. Fairly girly for me. Some could knock you out. Some could tickle your toes.

Ken Armstrong said...

1001 poems... and having your toes tickled by Rachel - not a bad day I'd say.

'Could help that limp too. :)

For what it's worth, I think some your poems are extraordinary. We don't any of us know how much time we have, so true, but if we can at least leave a sort of legacy - something that identifies us after we are gone, then that can be a comfort.

Damn, I've caught maudlin off of someone - who could that be, I wonder? :)

Jim Murdoch said...

Rachel, colour coding, yes, love it. I bet you have My Little Pony stickers on them and everything.

And, Ken, extraordinary, eh? I could live with that. As for the legacy thing, yeah, if I dropped dead tomorrow then I wouldn't be too disappointed with what I've accomplished, more than many, more than Larkin.

Marion McCready said...

Verrry interesting post! I love the graph, who else would have thought of that! And I really like your 'Failing' poem, reminds me of Holub. Definitely must be a girly thing - I've got all mine in different coloured plastic display folders also - no my little pony stickers though!

Hugh McMillan said...

What happened in 1989?
Such an outpouring!

Jim Murdoch said...

Yes, Sorlil, I can see the Holub comparison. I have to confess I had to look him up but for anyone else who's interested there's a decent introduction to his work here and a lot of links to his poems and other articles here. Glad you liked 'Failing' though.

I should have mentioned that I'm now up to 1005 poems by the way and a few more on the drawing board when I find a minute to finish them off.

Jim Murdoch said...

Shug, you have to ask? A woman. It's always a woman.

Rachel Fox said...

Maybe you were rude about her stickers.

Dave King said...

I think I should have gone away and had a little think about this, Jim, but I don't think I'd ever get my head around 1000 poems!
I think the two you have included here are charming. I like them very much indeed, too much to start analysing them.
I do agree with your remark to Dick that poetry has got too clever and needs to make friends with its audience again.
As to many of yours being crap, it doesn't matter how many times you miss the target, you add up the ones that hit for the score.
When does your Selected come out?

NathanKP said...

Excellent accomplishment! I plan to reach 1000 poems eventually.

I also found the graph of your poem distribution per year interesting.

NathanKP - Imagination Manifesto

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that, Dave. I've just finished writing a blog for Jasmin's Heart to go out mid October and, although it's a very short one by my standards, the whole focus of it is the difference between clever and intelligent poetry. I won't spoil it by saying any more here but I think it is essential for poetry's survival that it regains its audience in exactly the same way that classical music had to after some of the awful stuff they churned out in the sixties; I suspect the visual arts still have a way to go.

I had a look back at some of my very early stuff a while ago, actually when I was preparing this blog – I was going to put up ten poems, one per hundred – and I couldn't do it, the early stuff was so bad, but you're right, I had to go through all of that to get where I am now. The thing is, I remember being so proud of some of those early pieces. There were good bits, of course there were the odd line here and there that shone, but I think it's a good thing to realise that it takes time to find your feet or your voice or whatever you need to find to become a fully actualised writer.

As for a collection… Yes, in time I will get around to it. It's a daunting task though. I had to pick 5 for Jasko today and the list of possibilities just kept getting longer and longer.

And, Nathan, I'm pleased you liked the graph. It had been a while since I'd done any work on Excel but it was fun to do. It's interesting viewing. Of course what it doesn't show is all the other writing and I really couldn't think of a way to convey that; novels take years – at least they take me years. The thing is now I'm at an age when I don't fret about blocks when they come. I get on with something else. The work will get done. The important thing is not to waste the time you have.

Art Durkee said...

This reminds me of what they say to people in Aikido who have just passed the test and received their black belts:

"Now you're a serious beginner."

After you get your black belt, you're registered in Japan at the home dojo. That's when the real training begins. You start all over again, but having everything that you've done already to build on.

So, time to start over?

Art Durkee said...

P.S. I have no idea how many poems I've written. If you don't count the haiku, probably a few hundred; with the haiku, who knows, maybe a thousand, maybe not. I've never tracked or counted them.

I guess I understand the impulse, but it's not something that would ever occur to me to do. I live in the present moment about art, I guess. My two favorite four-letter words in art are "DONE" and "NEXT." That's what I pay attention to: getting something done.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I read this post today, Jim. I needed it. I've been facing a bit of a poetic block lately (though I've got some essays going) and wondered if it was the end of me. Seeing your graph puts it into perspective. I should have known better anyway, but the feeling of being overwhelmed by it all can get you down.

I tend to do like you do as far as goals — I can't set a writing goal for myself, but do try to keep up on submission schedules. I also try to schedule, broadly, when I revisit certain groups of poems, so that I can try to approach them with fresh eyes and judge them more accurately. That helps in tweaking the poems, but also understanding better where I might try to submit them, and if they are worthy of the attempt.

I've put together about 330 "adult" poems, and I don't know how many "pre-adult." To get to 1000... wow! That's great.

And I agree that some of your work really is extraordinary.

Jim Murdoch said...

You are quite right, Art, I have a lot to learn about poetry and I wouldn't have it any other way. Curiosity drives us. A few weeks ago I wrote a long poem – long for me you understand – and my wife was so surprised because it wasn't my usual style but, and I've said this before, the content dictates the form.

The numbering this is just something I started as a kid. I was studying music and the whole opus number thing delighted me as did the Köchel system for cataloguing Mozart's works and I just kept it going. I have each poem saved as a text file under the number. It works for me.

And, Shelly, yeah, when you're in the middle of a block you think that's the end of you as a writer, you might as well curl up and die but it does take time to work out what it natural for you. Most people look at someone like Joyce Carol Oates as a machine for churning out words and yet she doesn't see what the fuss is all about because it's natural for her to be her.

Mostly I have blocks to do with specific pieces rather than a complete inability to write. In the past I'd bang my head against them and end up writing nothing and that's plain stupidity but young people do stupid things.

The number thing shouldn't matter and on the whole it's never bothered me. There were times I never thought I'd make a thousand but then I've had a wee run and there I am a bit closer. I may never finish my current novel and that would be a shame but if I got an idea for another one I'd run with it and maybe come back to this one in four or five years; it's not going anywhere.

As for my poems being 'extraordinary'… What can I say other than, thank you? It really isn't false modesty when I shy away from terms like that. I just don't see it. And it really isn't for me to decide how extraordinary my work is or isn't. It pleases me. Every poem I've every written, even the bad ones, pleased me at the time. That some still please me after all these years is something but I imagine the ones I think are extraordinary most people would just think are okay. That's life.

Art Durkee said...

One thing your charting does, and your graph exemplifies, and what Shelly is getting at, is that every artist has fallow periods. I've talked about that before. They're not actually blocks, they're periods where the land is resting, before the next planting and harvest. I think they're perfectly normal, and probably even a good thing. I think too many writers develop anxieties about being blocked when they're really not: we make it worse by trying to force ourselves to produce on a mechanical schedule, rather than an organic one.

Jim Murdoch said...

You are quite right, Art, but it's not till you have a writing history stretching back thirty-odd years you can se that pattern. And everyone is different. I've mentioned John Irving before and how he loves to get a break from his novels, for example when he has to drop everything to work on editing a screenplay, he says he always comes back to his work the better for it. I haven't added a word to my current novel for weeks – too many other things demanding my attention right now – but I know for a fact that it's working away in the background; I can feel it. Writing is a complex thing. I write all the time but the words rarely find their way onto the page. Some do of course but only a fraction, only the best of the words.

Conda Douglas said...

1001 poems? I'm impressed as well, Jim. Also enjoyed the graph, but what interested me the most was your discussion of goals.

We all have different approaches--I for one work well with deadlines, better than when I assign myself a certain number of words a day. Just me.

And, once when I was struggling with my fiction--producing any!--I set myself the task of writing a poem a day about my dog. It worked. For me, having an odd goal (had to be a poem about the dog)and a goal in a different format (I rarely write poetry) freed me.

Jim Murdoch said...

I used to take photographs when I was young, Conda, in fact my dad bought me my first camera when I was five. The problem with photography then was the compelling need, because of the cost, to make every photograph count. Because of that I would take my time over every shot. Nowadays, with the advent of digital photography you can fire away and fire away and you only need to print the best.

I have always treated my writing like a photograph and when I start on one I'm loathed to leave it alone until it's a properly polished piece of work. The idea of writing a few paragraphs or even pages just to warm up never occurred to me; when I put pen to paper I was writing. I never throw photos away and I never throw any writing away either. I have a drawer full of stuff I'll never finish and yet it seems…sinful is the word that comes to mind, a bit old-fashioned I know but it's more than plain 'wrong'.

I remember reading about Joyce Carol Oates writing two novels longhand simply for the practice and then tossing them in the bin afterwards. The thought of it still upsets me. I would've slogged away at every one of those dog poems of yours and it would've failed to be what it needed to be – warm-ups. I'm no different now. I've never learned to waste words on exercises. Everything I start I look at as the beginnings of a finished work.

The problem with the digital camera – I have this on my mind because my lovely wife has just bought me a new one – is that, because it's so easy to dump photos I suspect there might be a tendency to become sloppy in ones habits, to not take the time to set up a shot and just to fire off a few and hope one works. The way I feel about any bit of writing is that you never know until you've put a bit of work into it – the right kind of work – whether or not you have something decent on your hands and the fact is, with a bit of work – the right kind – almost anything can be turned into a serviceable, if not necessarily great, piece of writing.

C. JoyBell C. said...

I was just about to post a very substantial comment right here...but by the time that I got to the end of the endless tally of comments that are already here, I forgot the very substantial thing that I was going to say! Sigh...

Jim Murdoch said...

Charity, if it comes back to you, my blog is always open.

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