Kona’s column 1: The Nights Are Fairly Drawing In

October 30, 2009

“April is the cruellest month,” said T.S. Eliot, but for me it’s October, when frost returns to the morning lawn, the leaves begin to thin, and more and more of my waking hours are enacted in the dark of pre-dawn and post-sunset.

I grew up in Melbourne, where winter was a mild event.  The night-time temperature almost never fell below freezing, and the sun rose before 8 and set after 5 even at the solstice.  Perhaps my internal thermostat was calibrated by that Australian childhood, or perhaps it’s just my innate physiology, but I’m always challenged by the onset of the Scottish winter.

It’s not really the cold that gets me down;  after 14 years in the UK, I’m used to that.  I’m resigned to the fact that I’ll spend five months of the year dressed in warm vests, unstylish thermally-lined outdoor trousers and two fleeces (and that’s just for indoors).  I’m accustomed to getting into bed at night with feet that will need half an hour on a hot water bottle to thaw out.  Leaving aside the complexities of staying warm, I actually love the outward signs of really cold weather – hoarfrost, snow on the hills or in the town, frozen puddles that I simply have to prod at with my boots.  The thing that leaves me floundering is the plummeting length of the days, and the insipid light that winter brings.

In my thirties, I became aware that there was something of a pattern to my productivity;  I would have months of hyper-busyness, followed by a long period of stagnation.  It took several years of unexplained January “exhaustion” before I noticed the blindingly-obvious-in-hindsight fact that my changing productivity correlated perfectly with the shifting of the seasons.  I wasn’t tired from overwork; I was simply demonstrating textbook symptoms of the “seasonal affective disorder” that’s so common in northerly latitudes where the winter days are short and dim.  Nowadays, I know what to expect.  In the summertime, I’ll be proactive and self-organised, with lots of projects on the go.  In the winter, I’ll just about manage to keep up the bare essentials.

If there’s one magical ingredient that any poet needs, it’s internal motivation.   Economic imperatives aren’t going to get you to your desk (or armchair, or library nook) in the morning, because you can’t make a living by writing poems.  The prospect of enormous fame isn’t going to get you there either;  can you name a poetry collection, by a living writer, that’s made a splash outside the poetry scene in the past year?  The past decade?  Even the prospect of peer respect doesn’t cut it;  for every person in the poetry world that publicly admires your work, there will be another who just as publicly excoriates it. (Perhaps, as has been said of academic politics, the sniping is so vicious because the stakes are so low…)  Even that small but precious corps of habitual poetry-consumers will mostly fail to hear of your poems, still less read them.

The depressing reality is that most of the time you’re writing into a vacuum, with no guarantee of even a transient readership, let alone a lasting contribution to the literature.  On bad days, when that mysterious internal drive to write is flagging, you fall back to ruminating on the universe’s gentle indifference to poems in general, and to your poems in particular, and wonder why the hell you bother.   You begin to fear that you’re just some deluded witterer pouring self-indulgent nonsense into the void;  that it’s all some big, bad joke of which you’re the gloriously oblivious butt.

The fact is that while you can readily cozen, browbeat or reason yourself into doing some writing, you can’t talk yourself into wanting to write – and it’s that inner drive, fulfilled, that actually makes the process of writing intrinsically rewarding, something worth doing simply for itself.  The cruelty of October, for me, is to watch this internal motivation seeping away;  to have to pick up, yet again, my cudgels for the annual battle with the twin demons of “I can’t be bothered” and “It’s all pointless anyway”.

I have my defences, of course.  I make a concerted effort to keep up my morning runs through the countryside, whatever my mood and whatever the weather, since these bring a double benefit – the endorphins of exercise, plus maximal exposure to whatever paltry sunlight is available. For the past few years, I’ve also had a special “brightlight” that I use each day to compensate for missing sunlight;  it does help, although it’s no substitute for the merchant banker’s alternative of two weeks in the Caribbean.

More recently, I’ve discovered nature’s own remedy – the mighty oat.  In the summer I never eat porridge, but over the winter I crave it, and have a large vat of stove-cooked porridge every morning, and sometimes another bowl for lunch or dinner;  it really seems to clear my head, and get rid of the strange claggy feeling behind my eyes.  I also cling, even more neurotically than usual, to the pragmatic support of a regular daily routine.

Despite such countermeasures, every year I have to resign myself to a muting of my output, both creative and practical, for months on end over the autumn-winter period.  It’s galling and demoralising in equal measure, and sometimes I fantasise about being one of those people who “divide their time” between opposite hemispheres, a kind of anti-ski-bum following the temperate weather around the globe.

At heart, though, I know I couldn’t live happily without some winter in my life. I love the drama of Northern Hemisphere seasons (so unlike their understated Australian equivalents);  the sudden frenzy of spring, the fecund summer, the earth-toned crispiness of autumn, the static sparseness of winter.  Here in Crieff, our view over the Grampian foothills changes dramatically with every variation in season, light and weather; every day brings a new and beautiful aspect, a fresh arraignment of colours and textures.  I couldn’t spend my life flitting between temperate climates in a forever-summer; I would miss winter, both for itself and for the cornucopia of imagery and inspiration it provides.  Winter darkness has its price, of course – that annual forced stare into the abyss of meaninglessness, of pointlessness – but perhaps it’s simply part of the poet’s job to be willing to look there once in a while.

Kona Macphee is a UK-born, Australian-bred poet now living and working in Scotland. This column is the start of a monthly feature. She is facilitating the Poetry Society Poetry Surgeries. There will be a second batch of sessions here in the library on Wednesday 27 January 2010.

One Response to “Kona’s column 1: The Nights Are Fairly Drawing In”

  1. […] Poet Kona Macphee’s words of wisdom and porridgey comfort as the nights draw in […]

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