Every so often, we hit those moments where we ask ourselves the defining questions. What has made us who we are? Why do we do what we do? Why do we live the way we live? What do we value most in life?
Such questions risk revealing difficult answers or things that we no longer want to contemplate. I’ve said before that things we pretend are complicated are often remarkably simple. And with that in mind, I ask myself why I do what I do, and if it reflects the person I am and want to be.
I’m into poetry because it tends to weave expressions in unique ways. It’s often a mystery and always a challenge. Like a Rubik’s Cube, it’s a puzzle that we try and shape back together, sometimes unable to finish.
Poetry pleases the senses and teaches us new ways to express ourselves. It has the power to make the most of a language, and to strike our imagination with visions and sensations that are missing elsewhere.
The seventeenth-century poet (and my research subject), Andrew Marvell, has long held my fascination for many reasons. I’m struck by his obsession with privacy; his stoic imagination; his brooding scepticism; and much more. He had few friends, and there were very few signs of normal relationships.
Marvell’s writing shows an incredible ability to twist and conceal, yet walk a tightrope. He’s not impenetrable, but still gives remarkably little away. He’s the master of elusiveness.
He’s not only a fascinating man with a barely-matched talent, he’s also somebody I seem to relate to as I go through life.
I’d rather not, of course. I would rather find the kind of happiness that always seems to have eluded Marvell and his work. But none of us want to feel alone in the path of life we are taking.
Marvell, I sense, has become almost a lifestyle rather than an interest. While there’s a certain perpetual charm to that, it really needs to stop.
Battling a great number of personal flaws, poetry has coloured my personality. It has extended my boundaries of creative thought and delicately refined the way I express myself. I have to believe in these attributes because they are the best I have to offer.
I still believe, though, that poetry is very much a compensation trail for loneliness. Regardless of how much has been written about the social function of poetry in the seventeenth century, there’s always going to be an element of writing and reading verse that is inherently private.
For myself, I genuinely don’t know if poetry has been about anything other than consolation: appreciating the creativity of solitude; understanding the depths of others’ hidden sorrows; and trying to shape my own feelings into something meaningful.
I’m under no illusions that while literature can illuminate our daily life, it barely has a function in the real world. Even for having done so well in recent months, I’m still lost for genuine fulfilment.
And so I ask: what do I value, and what do I want to be defined by? The number of books I’ve written? What I feel that I’ve achieved? Having a work-life balance that makes me happy? The love of others?
If I had a choice to make, to sacrifice my academic climes to leave loneliness behind, I think I would choose – in Marvell’s hallowed words – ‘to leave the books in dust’.