The only time where language has failed me completely was when my grandfather died, and I was writing – or attempting to write – a letter to my grandmother, telling her how sorry I was, how much I would miss him. No words seemed appropriate to the emotions I wanted to express, and I spent a solid hour in the library staring at a blank page before writing a few terse sentences, no doubt identical to what people are always reduced to when faced with the blunt facts of death: I’m so sorry, I will miss him so much.
I wrote the first poem I was ever truly satisfied with at that same desk, or one very like it, but certainly on the same floor of the university library. I cannot remember now what the poem was about, though I can recall that one of the images – hands compared to starfish clinging to a rock (was that the exact phrasing?) – was stolen from the Odyssey, which I was studying at the time. I no longer have a copy of the poem, and I suspect if I were to read it now, at such a distance from the originating emotions that went into its production, I would be embarrassed at its gaucheness, its lack of form or rigour. At the time, however, it meant a lot to me: I spent three uninterrupted days writing that poem, skipping meals and lectures, and only stopped when I was sure it was absolutely right.
At college, I had the opportunity to go on a writing weekend in Aberystwyth. I very nearly missed out on this chance, as I had put my name down late in the term, and was only on the reserve list, but luckily someone dropped out and I weaselled my way in. Aberystwyth, I remember, was hilly, or, no, it was built partially on a hill. I remember, too, taking a trip along the coast by rail with all the other students on the course to a desolate strip of shingle beach. Very Welsh: mist over everything, and the waves galumphing up the shore. I did get a couple of poems out of it, one of them in a loosely mystical mode (shot-through with apocalyptic undercurrents), the other revolving around a protracted – and, I now know, clichéd – comparison between the movements of the tide and sexual desire. I knew nothing about sexual desire, fulfilled or otherwise, but I enjoyed the sound the words made when I wrote them down, and the tutors seemed to like it, so the authenticity of the material was not really an issue to me. Now, however, I can see things differently, more clearly, and I recognise that my ocean-sex poem represented a false start, a bum note. Maybe I should have written a poem about getting drunk in an Aberystwyth pub instead – at least it would have been true – but I’ll make up for my lapse in judgement by writing about it now. I’d never really been drunk before, and found myself saying things I wouldn’t normally say – such as arguing that the legalisation of heroin was preferable, purely from the perspective of medical health, to keeping it classified as illegal – and behaving in ways that were quite out of character. Towards the end of the evening, I stumbled outside for some fresh air, and noticed that the rain falling through the streetlights looked like insects dancing. I tried to tell one of the tutors about this, but they just smiled or laughed, I don’t remember which, thinking I was drunk, which I was, a little, but missing, I think, the essential point of what I was trying to say. I walked back through the rain to the university accommodation where we’d been housed for the weekend, arm in arm with another lad whose name I can’t now remember, singing Queen songs at the top of our lungs.