So you have finished your next collection of poems and you are left to wonder what next? Every poet knows this feeling as a deathly silence takes hold and the words begin to evaporate. There is no rule as to how long one should take between books but from my perspective I get worried when I take longer than three years.
However, there may be good reasons for being patient. Sometimes the voice you have carefully buffed, finessed over a couple of slim volumes, begins to change on you, and it takes time to figure out what is meaningful about those changes. For myself, I have little interest in writing for the sake of writing. I have to feel like I’m staking out some new poetic territory for myself, or if I’m returning to my favorite triggering subjects, I’m writing about those subjects in a new way.
I’ve written long syllabics and surprisingly surreal poems, thoughtful meditations and slap-stick lyrics, but what to turn my attention towards next can sometimes be a mystery. I certainly do not want to force a subject, a poem, an image. I would rather wrestle an angel. Friends suggest reading the new darlings of the poetry community, or going back to earlier influences for inspiration, or maybe heading out to a reading series to hear poetry spoken aloud, but ultimately new work comes when it is ready.
When I am writing well, I feel like the language is literally spilling out of me. I write quickly and passionately. I feel the rightness of every word and every line break. I am not one of those people anymore who does twenty drafts of a poem. If I knew how to channel that manic energy required to write, I would clearly do it because I feel in command of my life when I’m writing and bereft when I’m not.
I worry about my life choices when the silence takes over and I’m forced to wait for the next surge of poems.
What gets me through the hush-hush of times when I am not writing are my kids and those poets who have written far more eloquently about such things than me. Here is a poem by Jack Gilbert I return to, again and again, when the quiet becomes overwhelming:
Waiting and Finding
While he was in kindergarten, everybody wanted to play
the tomtoms when it came time for that. You had to
run in order to get there first, and he would not.
So he always had a triangle. He does not remember
how they played the tom-toms, but he sees clearly
their Chinese look. Red with dragons front and back
and gold studs around that held the drumhead tight.
If you had a triangle, you didn’t really make music.
You mostly waited while the tambourines and tomtoms
went on a long time. Until there was a signal for all
triangle people to hit them the right way. Usually once.
Then it was tomtoms and waiting some more. But what
he remembers is the sound of the triangle. A perfect,
shimmering sound that has lasted all his long life.
Fading out and coming again after a while. Getting lost
and the waiting for it to come again. Waiting meaning
without things. Meaning love sometimes dying out,
sometimes being taken away. Meaning that often he lives
silent in the middle of the world’s music. Waiting
for the best to come again. Beginning to hear the silence
as he waits. Beginning to like the silence maybe too much.
By Jack Gilbert