Channeling Hardship into Poetry

For a long time, I accused myself of having “writer’s block” when nothing worthwhile appeared on paper for a month or two. However, I began to notice a pattern in these “block” periods. They weren’t at all signs of lost inspiration, or poetic burnout. They were just periods where I was doing really well in my life, and was therefore otherwise occupied.

This is an article about how you cannot expect to be equally “inspired to write” at all times throughout your life.

Requirements for Writing

I found out some years ago, that when I was in a bad place in my life, I wrote a lot more, and of a lot better quality than otherwise. It didn’t matter why or how I was in a bad place – financially / emotionally – it made no difference. I just needed to feel pushed up against the wall, and with no other outlet. Then the poetry came pouring out all by itself, with no need for coaxing. But as soon as that passed – as soon as I overcame whatever difficulty I was facing – the inspiration vanished as quickly as it had seized me.

It has often been said that poets write on a basis of suffering.

“What is a poet? An unhappy person, who hides deep wounds in his heart, but whose lips are formed so that, as the sighs and screams emit from them, they sound like exquisite music.”

Søren Kierkegaard, Diapsalmate

While the above may be a melodramatic way of expressing it, the foundation holds true. There is far more poetry written about – for instance – unrequited than requited love. I mean, if you have the love, you’re pursuing it instead of writing about it. Writing becomes secondary when you are in possession of the thing that occupies your mind.

Poetry is, sometimes, simply a practical outlet for difficult emotions it is hard to channel anywhere else in a constructive manner.

Past Conflicts Alive Today

Today, our problems seem rather petty and small compared to what our ancestors had to go through. Few of us – at least in the West – ever see war or famine or epidemics in real life. They have become things that happen to other people. Things we keep at arm’s length, out of sight and out of mind.

However, if we go back in history and examine great works of literature – it becomes clear that many of them were based on, or written in the wake of, just such events.

Think of Boccaccio’s (1313 – 1375) “Decameron”. An astounding collection of novellas, based on the premise that a group of young people had fled Florence during the Black Death, and during their exile in the countryside told each other stories to pass the time.

Or Tolkien, who started penning the basis of what would become the back story to “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” while in the trenches during WW1.

Tolkien as a young soldier.

Our contemporary problems seem small in comparison, but there is no use in diminishing their potential to affect us.

It is important to remember that we do not tend to compare ourselves with people who are that far removed from us in time – we compare ourselves (of course) with our friends and family members, or celebrities perhaps. People we would like to be as.

And so, no matter how much smaller the things we battle are – they don’t work any differently in terms of inspiration. Because our basis for comparison has shifted with the times, and what we consider difficulty today, is simply markedly different from what it used to entail.

What to Take Away From This

Well, we are human. Our emotions are not stable, however much we would like them to be. They shift and change. And as they do so, our abilities and/or interests shift with them.

If poetry works as a stand-in for whatever it is that we want or need, or as a way to overcome hardship, then it makes sense that the ability to write declines whenever we are less needy or in a better place.

Unless of course you come away from whatever the original source of inspiration was, with permanent scars.

Now, I’m not saying that this is a natural law or that it necessarily goes for everybody. And I’m also not saying that it is impossible to write poetry when you’re in a good mood (since it isn’t). I’m just saying, that it can somestimes work this way. I have observed it in my own life, and there are historic precedents.