Where does a poem come from?

Paekākāriki writer Rob Hack on what motivates anyone to write a poem, or become a poet.

Are poets born? Or formed and shaped by external circumstances?  

Albert Wendt the great Samoan poet and novelist wrote, ‘like a sensitive plant, the artist, through an unconscious process of osmosis, draws his mana from everything around him like a birth sac…’

People sometimes ask what motivates me to write poetry. ‘I don’t know, I don’t know where/it came from, from winter or a river’ Pablo Neruda answers in his poem, Poetry. When I told a writer friend some years ago that I’d just enrolled in a creative writing course, he exclaimed thumping his chest, “It comes from here mate!”

Poetry: where does it come from?

It was like poetry hadn’t been invented in our household during my early years. Reading was what adults did to relax at the end of the day after work. Reading, especially in daylight hours by us kids was considered lazy. “Go outside and play,” they’d say, “go outside and do something useful.”

My bros and I, sent outside in Niue

1967 was called the Summer of Love. A similar kind of emotion came over me that year. The first stirrings of a poetic awareness came when I, a skinny third former, heard poetry read aloud in English class. When I began to feel a strange euphoric tightness in my shallow chest. When, in the mad rush, noise and jostle of crowded hallways as we hustled between classes, I felt somewhat apart; separate from the other students, elevated to my own happy place. Mayakovsky’s A cloud in trousers perhaps.  Not knowing what I was suffering from and unsure how to find a psychiatrist in the phone book until I learned to spell, I certainly wasn’t able to mention it to my mates after rugby training. I decided to harden up. For thirty years.

So, in 1997 while Topless Women Talked About Their Lives I shut the doors on a laughably unprofitable gym business that five years earlier, a local bank had foolishly loaned me money for. I hightailed it to town. Into a cheap dingy flat across the road from a busy escort agency. For six months I coped with slammed taxi doors, yelled expletives and hourly sirens by escaping into poetry books. The Romantics mainly. It was the language that enthralled me. Keats most of all, Donne and Shakespeare’s marvellous sonnets. I didn’t want realism, experimentalism, modernism, any other ‘ism. Two years later I began to write poems. Angry, disdainful, self-absorbed and rhyming. 

Ma and Pa on their first date in Rarotonga

So, where does poetry come from? For me it was in 2000. When I moved into my Cook Island mother’s Paraparaumu Beach home to look after her in her early onset dementia. I felt impelled to record her story when I realised she had no written records and no photos of her life on Rarotonga before she met, at age 30, my camera-toting father. 

Poetry only really emerged as my chosen genre during creative writing classes later. It enabled me to present fragmented facts and give direction to discombobulated thoughts. Having deadlines forced me to sit and write without worrying about not being outside doing something useful. A hard habit to ignore to this day.

Alexander Pope said, ‘it is the act of writing that produces ideas, not the other way round.’ I agree, mostly. Sometimes inspiration just hits. Most people would write interesting stuff if only they could be bothered sitting down and writing — everyone has stories within. But jobs, kids, mortgages, YouTube all get in the way. Reading poetry is immensely helpful too but it has yet to catch on or make inroads into the gaming world or Netflix market.

Inspiration comes from anywhere (even YouTube). You have to be receptive; ready to pounce on that thought, that sound, that scene or recollection. Sitting in a cafe in a beret in front of a blank page, holding a pencil to my mouth while gazing ironically doesn’t do much for my poetry or Amazon stocks.  

Sadly, neither have my pilgrimages done much for my writing: Lorca’s grave near Granada; the room where Keats died by the Spanish Steps; the pub in Zennor where D H Lawrence imbibed; the postcard beauty of East Coker and Eliot’s ashes; Proust’s and Wilde’s graves in Pere Lachaise. But, as they say it’s grist to the mill. How can you learn from experiences you’re not  having?

Poetry, it comes from anywhere. Anyone can write it. There is no standard ‘type’ of poet. Two of history’s greatest led completely dissimilar lives. Wallace Stevens— reckoned by some as Americas greatest 20th century poet — studied Law and rose from insurance clerk to insurance executive, died in bed at 75. Fiery Alexandr Pushkin — considered Russia’s greatest poet — led a dissolute life; gambling, debauchery, exile and brawling. He died in a duel at 37.                                                                                      

You write despite not enduring political oppression, alcoholism, war, racism, poverty or suffering, through a relationship breakup or death of a friend. Although as Billy Collins said, “Death: it’s what poets get up for in the morning.” 

Wherever it comes from, the poet’s job is to catch it. Easier said than done. As Robert Frost says, a poem is ‘like a piece of ice on a hot stove; it moves on its own melting.’      

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