For these past couple of months, I’ve been working toward a deadline. A reasonable deadline, but one which helped focus my mind on the poem so I just might push on through and complete the thing. The Cardiff International Poetry Prize. Closing end of May. Perhaps a little sooner. 25th, was it?

Well it was the 25th, but it was the 25th of March. Or, rather it is the 25th of March, the 25th of March being tomorrow. Which is a disaster. Or is it?

Fact is that I started worrying I was pushing the poem too hard exactly because I was writing it with an eye on the competition. Competition meant judges, meant me writing with an always-stringent awareness of wanting it to be as poemish as was possible, to give it the best chance of being considered ‘worthy’ by the panel.

Worth. Pah. I’ve spent my life on worth, specifically desperately clutching for what is considered ‘worthy’ by the world, without before actually thinking about what I felt was worthy, what was worthy to me. Worth to me is creativity, is honesty. Worth to me is awareness, perspective. Worth is not being blinded by the fabricated world we’ve wrapped ourselves in.

It’s looking up into the sky at the blanched moon hovering, pitted and shadowed, and realising, “Jesus Christ, I’m stood on a giant ball of earth and water and heat and air and we’re spinning through a fucking galaxy around a superheated bloody star. There is no such thing as normal, as conventional, as powerlessness. Just this random ruddy planet and the things that breathe and grow and move and burrow and what I decide to do with my time”.

The only way you can punch your way out of a paper bag is to throw your fists further than the weak walls of that daft prison. It’s all too easy, when bills need to be paid, when 9am is a command not an hour, when Saturday morning and Sunday evening feel like waking and dying in the space of two days, when Monday morning makes you question everything, it’s all too easy to forget that all these things are not natural, not just what happens, not how it has to be.

Worth for me is having the strength to know that all of these things depend on choices I make, not that I’m forced to make. The control of my life, from Monday morning to Sunday evening, isn’t in the hands of some disembodied convention or wielded by the powers of ‘just the way it is’. Sure, changing decisions can demand sacrifices. But sacrifices aren’t all bad. Certainly if the alternative is head-down-grin-and-bear-it-make-it-through-and-survive-until-retirement.

Yes, it’s not as simple as that or as depressing as that or as straightforward. Many, many, many people harbour a resentment for the working week which explodes in weekend drinking, or perhaps in sport, or just in escaping through a hobby. Probably as many people have no resentment of the sort. But the normalised way of thinking, of living, isn’t for everyone and it isn’t for me, and that I understand myself and know that about myself is worth. If I can live with it, be happy with it, that would be truly worthy.

So I’ve spent this time writing a poem which reflects my ideas of worth, which keys into my interest in choices, in consequences, which to me has a lot to do with being a man, with power, with the clash of personalities, with conflict, with hopelessness and with realisation. And yet I’ve spent this time failing to see what the best part of me has almost shouted at me, which is that examining these things is worthy, and making two lines rhyme so that a judge might feel they’re reading a ‘worthy’ poem is not.

I am gutted that the poetry competition is closing tomorrow, and yet it means I can release the poem, release my imagination, from this cage of restrictions and expectations I cast upon it, that I choked my passion with. Bashing out a few off-the-cuff pages of a potential novel was what I needed, giving the poem time to live and develop was what I needed. I thought I needed a deadline, a competition, recognition. My ego might. But my writing does not.


About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
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