In Praise of Writer's Block
An Essay by David Alpaugh
(author of The Professionalization of Poetry)
Three cheers for Writer’s Block! Poetry’s Tenth Muse! The youngest in an all-girl family and, like most kid sisters, a pain in the butt to boyfriends intent on making out with more fully developed siblings. All of the Muses are daughters of Mnemosyne, Goddess of Memory, but Writer’s Block is wholly her mother’s child (unlike the original nine—fathered by that male chauvinist pig, Zeus).
The Tenth Muse had a difficult childhood. Too tongue-tied and flat-chested to compete with her outspoken, voluptuous sisters, she gazed enraptured as they descended to Earth each night to enjoy liaisons with the most eloquent spirits mortality had to offer. She watched Calliope return from heroic skirmishes with Homer, Virgil, Milton; Polyhymnia from ecstatic retreats with Hesiod, Dante, Herbert; Erato from romantic trysts with Sappho, Catullus, Donne; Euterpe from choral fests with Horace, Herrick, Keats; Melpomene from cathartic encounters with Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare; Thalia from merry frolics with Aristophanes, Chaucer, Moliere. She read all of the immortal poetry her sisters inspired—with delight—and developed an infallible sense of what human beings call “taste.”
In the Golden Age, when there were only a few dozen scops, bards, and druids, the Muses were on call 24 hours a day, and they could afford to visit suitors every time one of them had an itch to write. But as literary history unfolded and poetry became increasingly popular, it became harder and harder and finally impossible to spend quality time with every would-be poet who called for assistance. Clearly, not everyone who invoked the Muses deserved to have the Fab Nine’s personal phone numbers inscribed in their nothing books. Not all were worthy and, even if worthy, ready to write a poem.
When prospects looked unlikely the Muses began to send their little sister to represent them. She was so effective that it soon became clear why Mnemosyne had given birth to The Tenth Muse. She was the Helicon Nine’s a priori rejection slip. If poetasters were allowed to prattle on with scores of dreadful sonnets and odes the time would come when poetry, buried in its own litter, would no longer matter. Her sisters’ reputations would be ruined and her mother’s memory confounded. It was the mission of The Tenth Muse to make certain that only inspired poetry would continue to be brought into the world.
When someone sitting down to scribble throwaway verse had the nerve to call Thalia or Melpomene for assistance, The Tenth Muse slammed the receiver back in its cradle. When an adolescent beau came to the door, flowers in hand, mooning after Erato or Euterpe, and neither was in the mood to play carpe diem, The Tenth Muse stuck out her tongue like a snotty brat, barring the would-be poet’s way. Over the years she presided over countless full and partial-birth abortions so that when her sisters were ready to participate, legitimate poems could be conceived, born, and lodged in human memory (where a poet much visited by her sisters hoped they would “be hard to get rid of”).
There were notable failures. Not even The Tenth Muse could stop Polonius from running off at the mouth; and while she was busy keeping a failed journalist from writing something called a “prose poem” Joyce Kilmer sat down underneath an elm and rattled off “Trees.” But all things considered she was a huge success, preventing hundreds of thousands of second, third, and fiftieth rate “poems” from engulfing the little shoal of time mortals have to contemplate the best that has been thought and said in the world.
For centuries poets not only had no name for The Tenth Muse; they were unaware that she existed. When they failed to write a sterile sestina or vapid villanelle most of them blamed it on the frigidity of one or more of her sisters. Those more willing to admit their own limitations had various names for the mysterious force that was reining them in: Modesty, Discretion, Judgment, and Cleanliness were names that sometimes sprang to mind.
Then, towards the end of the second millennium, the tide started to turn against The Tenth Muse. A new breed of professional poet planted its flag on college shores and quickly became subject to that country’s iron law of publish or perish. These poets were compelled to write every day to garner enticing “creative” writing salaries. They presided over and were beholden to a multitude of professional wannabes who also had to write incessantly in order to accrue cultural capital in the form of MFA degrees, publications, prizes, blurbs, and grants.
These poets developed a passion for gambling. Poetry casinos sprang up across the land, offering stakes as high as $300,000—but gaming tables were so rigged that the poetry seldom had much to do with who walked away with bulging pockets and who got bilked. Still, since gulls had to have chips to play, and in this game chips were poems, the compulsion to write, write, write spread to the populace at large. Would-be poets lined up by the thousands to plunk their poems into $5, $15, and $25 slot machines. Literary Lotto became the rage!
This priestly tribe of poet/teachers and its disciples perceived The Tenth Muse as a great threat to their burgeoning enterprise. The last thing they needed was a powerful force putting the kibosh on pseudo-creativity. Left unopposed The Tenth Muse promised to bring their lucrative pyramid scheme crashing to the ground.
Because she stood in their way and was adept at karate, they nicknamed The Tenth Muse “Writer’s Block” and deployed their mighty forces against her with such ferocious battle cries as Speak, Parrot!; Write on, McPoem!; and No one can stop me from grinding out a ghazal!
The poetry profession has engaged The Tenth Muse in dubious battle on the plains of paper and cyberspace—and aesthetic Armageddon is upon us. She is being attacked relentlessly in classrooms, in workshops, and at conference tables with subversive exercise plans, how-to books, and poetry magnets. Her enemies never miss an opportunity to thwart her efforts to keep poetry from being overwhelmed and ultimately destroyed. “Down with Writer’s Block!” the infantry cries, opening floodgates for wave upon wave of tepid verse until no one can contemplate even a fraction of the effluence, and the real thing (like treasure lost at sea) is difficult, if not impossible, to find.
I’ve always been struck by how little a poet need write to be remembered. “By a single line,” William Carlos Williams observes, “Villon goes on living defiantly.” Quality, not quantity, is where it’s at when it comes to poetry. Writer’s Block is our Tenth Muse and her mother’s daughter. She has kept many true poets from befouling their nests on Parnassus with unmemorable journeywork.
T.S. Eliot is one of them. After reading his poetry at an American university, he was asked if he had any advice for young writers in the audience. He is reported to have answered, “I would advise them to write less.”
Eliot practiced what he preached. Remove the juvenilia, the light verse, the French poems, and the plays from his collected work and we are left with less than 150 pages of poetry written over five decades—three pages of poetry per year! Yet no one complains that Eliot did not write enough—or that his body of work is slight. Eliot did not waste readers’ time by diluting the work of previous poets. Nor did he parody his own earlier work. Writer’s Block advised him against doing so, and he listened.
Is not Eliot’s fellow Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz defending the honor and integrity of Writer’s Block when he argues that “poems should be written rarely and reluctantly”? Does he not ally himself with all ten of the Muses when he expresses his “hope that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument”?
I, for one, have never thought of The Tenth Muse as my enemy, but as a frank but friendly collaborator:
When one of them does call, it’s often at the most inopportune times—when I’m taking a shower, walking the dog, reading a book, eating a peach, watching a re-run of Columbo….‘Not now,’ she whispers, gently, putting my pen back in its coffee mug. ‘Don’t waste time doing something you’ll regret—something you’ve done before or that another poet has already done better. Yes, this journal is giving a $1000 prize for the best poem on glass blowing; and that anthology is seeking poems on lesbian love by heterosexuals suffering from Tourette’s syndrome. Don’t even think about it! Go back to your day job. Wait for ideas and rhythms to flow from the Pierian Spring—from your deepest point of origin. Let metaphors percolate; similes marinate; images ferment. One of my sisters will call—if and when you’re ready.’
I wrote my last poem six weeks ago. If The Tenth Muse allows one of her sisters to drop by to visit again I’ll gladly write another. If not, it’s not the end of the world for me, for you, or for poetry. If I never write a poem again, so be it (I actually enjoy the suspense). I have read some of the professional schemes for foiling The Tenth Muse. I have also seen the fruits of such schemes, and they have yet to raise a hair on the back of my neck.
If you have no ulterior motive for writing poetry—just a desire to express and share thoughts, ideas, experience, love of language—you are in an enviable position. Unlike poetry professionals you can afford to listen to The Tenth Muse. If you love poetry as much as she does you’ll welcome her assistance. When she stands in your way, trust her: She is protecting her mother, her sisters, poetry—and you. When she gets out of your way, grab your pen or sit down at your computer and write poetry that wells up from within, poetry that is intimately connected to your one wild and precious life—the only poetry that matters in the long run.
The Tenth Muse has written only one line of poetry, but it’s a killer. She’s ever ready to recite it for poets willing to listen. If it sounds familiar that’s because that son of Bacchus, Paul Masson, stole it from her and gave it to Orson Welles years ago to use in a wine commercial: “We shall write no poem before its time.”
Until we discover her real name—let’s give it up for Writer’s Block!