The downside of looking back too far…

It seemed like a good idea. I mean, I had some free time on my hands after all. Not for right now you understand, but for some point in the future – just in case ‘posterity’ might ever need it…

Over the years I have written (thus far) a number of volumes of poetry, and I got to thinking: “If you put that lot together – essentially seven slim volumes – then you’d end up with maybe 500 poems. That would be a collection and a half! I wonder what it would look like…”

And then wondering turned to action, resulting in me pulling together all the aforementioned pieces into one document; pages of the stuff. Although I probably shouldn’t have been, I was impressed. “But if you are going to produce a true ‘Collected Poems’, then shouldn’t you also take the opportunity to review the lot, if only to be able to say “completely revised” somewhere upfront?” – because I’ve seen that more than once..!

You can debate whether that was my first or second mistake – or perhaps you’ve lost count! – but when I went back to the beginning, to those poems around the early 1980s (the ones I thought back then were great) more than once I found myself thinking disbelievingly “I wrote that?!”. And I rarely said it in a good way… It was, quite frankly, a little demoralising.

There are two possible reasons for my reaction. The first is the knowledge that I don’t write like that any more, and so the poems are of a time / era / sensibility. The second – and I’m being honest here – is that some of them may not be as good as I once thought. Of course, it could be a combination of both..!

Where did that hammer blow leave me? A pause on revisiting the old stuff – and the raising of a yet unanswered question as to whether a “Selected Poems” might not be a better option. You know, just the really good stuff…

Which all begs the question about the value of looking back too far into the past, the dangers inherent in turning over some of those old stones. Because – certainly in the case of poetry – I’m not sure you can win: leave the poems as they are and as an honest reflection of how you were / how you wrote at the time, or edit them to bring them right up-to-date with how you are / how you write now? The problem with the latter is that you effectively end up with completely different poems.

The great thing, of course – and here the glass is decidedly half-full – is that the exercise has already demonstrated that we move on, we develop, we begin to find our voice, our style; we learn what we want to write about, and how we want to do so. And hopefully the things we wrote this year are just a little better than what we came up up last year, even though that was a little better than the year before…

On that basis, I should already look forward to the next poem, the next story – and I do. If it’s naïve being convinced the next volume, the next character, the next plot line is going to be a step up on the last, then guilty as charged. And thinking about it, isn’t that a better place to be than finding out what you wrote yesterday is pretty much exactly the same as something you came up with twenty years ago?

So, for now, the project goes on the back-burner – after all, I assume (hope!) posterity won’t come calling just yet.

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