It was about six months before I realized I had stopped writing poetry. I was digging through my desk looking for a new journal and found a just-started journal, the one I needed. As I grabbed it and headed off for my little writing spot, it dawned on me that this was no longer normal. There was no sense of commonplace, no déjà vu, no rhythm to this action.
I had not written a single poem in six months. Maybe I didn’t need a creative outlet anymore?
Before the six-month gap, I had written often—pushed by my need for release from tedium or boredom. Poetry became a habit, a response to an innate need to do something remotely purposeful. Poetry was a grasping response to the drudgery of my desk job. Just finished a mind-numbing task with no redeeming value? Redeem the day with a poem.
There was also a drive to succeed, to do something more: to get published, to get noticed, to move beyond the confines of a desk. The diligence of writing had as much to do with redeeming time I had wasted producing nothing of much value in order to get paid as it did with trying to create a new means of living. My spreadsheet and analysis work was a job, producing money. Poetry was work as vocation, producing no money, but delight, joy, craftsmanship and value instead.
What had happened in those six months is that I had taken a leap into a new position at a new organization in a new place in the country, and my work switched from job to vocation. Just like the flick of a light switch, my work was suddenly being driven from a foundation of delight, joy, and value. And without noticing, poetry just disappeared.
I should have noticed when three months in to the poetry drought I was asked to review a book of poetry for a publication and as I read it there was no desire. I yawned at it. There was no connection. After missing the deadline by a few weeks, I wrote to the editor that I was just not relating to the work. I did not think I could review it. The book sits on a shelf now, three quarters read and never reviewed.
So too sat my poetry journal, until the day I found it. One quarter filled, three quarters blank, not picked up for six months. Out of necessity? Forgetfulness? Was I too busy? Or did I just no longer need poetry in my life.
Staring at the pages, I sensed a need for deep reflection. What was the telos of my drive to write poetry? There were a host of possible answers that would be wrong if I blurted them out to my inner interlocutor: fame, approval, recognition. There were the good answers in there too, ruminating: beauty, truth, meaning, delight, hope, love. Then there was the answer I stumbled onto: therapy.
I had been writing poetry for therapy. It got me through boredom and tedium, lack of value and fleeting purpose, and now that my work satisfied those needs poetry disappeared, riding off alone into the sunset: the town saved, the lawless criminals dead, all in its proper place again.
When it comes to work and poetry I thought of myself as aligned with the likes of T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens. I know, that’s tall company to put yourself in, but I gravitated toward them because they were working poets like me: Eliot was the bad luck Ph.D. candidate that did a long stint at Lloyds Bank of London and spent his career at Faber and Faber while Stevens was an insurance executive at Hartford Accident and Indemnity (the company with the rugged deer commercials). I have never been a fan of Stevens’ poetry (sorry for any offense), but I was deeply inspired by his biography. Here was a man who could conquer his desk job with poetry, who had an outlet and seized it, and rose above crunching numbers and pushing papers to produce something meaningful for the world. I treated Eliot and Stevens’ biographies like hagiographies.
So I looked back onto my own poetry and wondered where it had gone. Therapy seemed like the only answer. Put nicely, poetry had been my outlet to reflect on my work and try to redeem it. More bluntly, and perhaps more honestly, poetry had been a crutch, a kick-stand, a means to cope with something I did not want to deal with directly.
In the clinical terms of an article in the Journal of Poetry Therapy, poetry, and writing in general, “makes events and emotions more manageable when put into words; it provides an element of control to the writer….Writing can lead to greater self-understanding, clarification, resolution and closure.”
With the events of my life—tedium, boredom, dissatisfaction, lack of vocation—suddenly rectified, the need to make events more manageable disappeared. I know longer needed to feel like I was in control of something, so the need to control through writing disappeared. For me, writing was not the path to resolution and closure, it was a symptom of resolution and closure: when I had closed the book on a restless chapter of my life, the writing closed up too.
There had been times when poetry had slowed to a drip, like the remnant drops from a spigot descending rhythmically to the earth. In those times I waited, knowing it would return. I even wrote a poem about the situation, entitled “Poetry comes in fits.” There was a trust that words would come, that a block would not last long—the need for control was ever present.
I no longer control the poetry. I write every once in a while, but the desire to prove, to master, to bend words to my every whim is no longer there. Poetry is more like a game now, a form of recreation, a delight. It will always be there, waiting, yet I no longer need it to fill a void. A proper sense of vocation, a self-knowledge that I now enjoy the daily work of my hands, is enough for me now. Eliot probably said it best:
We will build with new speech
There is work together
And a job for each
Every man to his work.