Nov 10, 2021 • 5M

Writing for The Beast

How W.S. Graham’s The Beast in the Space can help orient the writer in a hyper-connected world

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Niall O'Sullivan
A monthly podcast where I read out and chat about my personal highlights and talk about other stuff too.
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In a previous rant about Blade Runner 2049 and social media, I paid lip service to W.S. Graham’s The Beast in the Space. I spoke briefly about how Graham’s poem posits a vast gap, a silence, a broad space between the reader and the writer/poet and how meaning becomes a ravenous beast that haunts this space. The illusion given by social media is that we can narrow the space and tame the beast — to give us an immediate feeling of our words hitting their target, to elicit an immediate “indeed!” whenever words flood from us. If you haven’t yet read the poem then feel free to click the link in the text above and give it a go. I’ll be right here when you get back.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve cut back on my twitter activity. I mainly post links to the blogs and poems that I publish on this Substack. Muscle memory still compels me to enter “tw..” into a browser and choose the first option from the drop down list. During these moments of weakness I sometimes reply to something that snags my attention (normally some masterful trolling from Limmy). But most of the time, if I think of something witty or some juicy hot take, I see if I can write a blog about it. If not, I fold it back into the compost of my thoughts.

I don’t know much about W.S Graham. I know that he lived in some remote locations within the British Isles and that he might have been a little bit fond of the bottle. Like many other great poets of the 20th Century, he seemed to prefer the company of hard working rural folk than he did the company of bookish types and intellectuals (a quick browse of the Poetry Foundation proves me a little right and a little wrong. He grew up in Clydeside, spent some time in London, hobnobbing with the great and the good before moving to Cornwall and hanging out with fishermen and painters).

Nothing has changed in the relationship between poet and audience since The Beast in the Space was first published in 1970. Whether you are bashing away at a typewriter in the arse end of nowhere or tapping scissor switch keys in some kind of coffee shop (you know, like someone in a YouTube review for the latest MacBook), Graham’s Beast (or The Beast as it will henceforth be known) is still thrashing about in the space between writer and reader.

None of us have a chance of being understood beyond the notion of how we fit in within the beliefs, biases and whims of our readers. Alliances, consensuses and the odd furore or fracas may ensue, but we are just as blind to the motives of each reader in their response as they are to the author that set it all in motion.

That is not to say that a kind of accord can’t develop between a writer and their readership. I often think about how I’ve observed authors when they read before an audience and how they may act at the subsequent signings or Q&As. The applauses and responses that seemed so pleasant and harmonious from the vantage point of the stage become awkward and fragmented when the readers appear, one by one, at the signing table.

At the other end of the scale from “writing for the audience” we find the option of “writing for yourself”. I’ll often hear this one expressed with a note of exasperation from a student early on in the workshopping process. It’s a good point to make in the context of the classroom and one I try to take down as gently as possible. If you can write for the sole purpose of making yourself happy then I am genuinely happy for you. This is something far greater than success. It cuts out the middle man. It cuts out The Beast. But as soon as you are sending it out to a publisher, reading it to an audience or submitting it as an assignment you shouldn’t expect it to be judged by the same criteria.

I think that Graham gives us a valid way out from this paradox, this inability to write for our audience or to write for ourselves. We can instead chose to write for The Beast, for the noise that our expressions might make across that ungovernable silence that sits between us and our audience.

In the days of online publishing there’s more chance than ever that there might not even be an audience waiting for us, just the burgeoning static of the worldwide web. Similarly, any response that we get is not necessarily an accurate snapshot of whatever happened within the soul of the reader. It is the beast lolloping back with what might be the semblance of a reply. When you really understand this, you can make an informed decision as to whether this writing racket is worth your time and tears. Or, to borrow from the conclusion of Graham’s poem:

Watch. He bites. Listen gently
To any song he snorts or growls
And give him food. He means neither
Well or ill towards you. Above
All, shut up. Give him your love.

Thank you for reading this