I remember reading George Orwell's essay Why I Write and wondering how many people discovered that his reasons were very like their own.
For me though, surprisingly for someone who became a convinced atheist early in life, it began with the bible. In hindsight it was the layout of the words on the page that made me think this was a different use for words. Impossible to tell exactly when my early curiosity turned to disbelief.
The next occasion the shape of words on the page affected me it was poetry. At school, a poetry book (probably Palgrave's) was to be given as a prize to the person who was best at reciting a poem. I'm not sure now whether we had freedom of choice, but Browning's Home Thoughts From Abroad is associated in my mind with this event. I was hopeless at reciting poetry, clueless, but I really wanted that book. The prize eluded me.
I can't remember poetry featuring in my thoughts again until I was in my teens, and I don't know where it came from then. I was not a happy child, but unsocial, and rather serious. My school career, if you can call it that, was not successful. I remember being bored by school most of the time, and generally, with a few notable exceptions, I disliked teachers. A stubborn streak in me refused to engage with lessons, but I did a lot of reading on my own behalf, and beyond a preference for Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu books, and Sherlock Holmes, began to seek more serious reading.
Like so many people, as a teenager I found myself writing poetry to express angst. Very bad poetry as you might expect. I fell for the idea of being a poet. I thought it had a dash of romance about it, and probably it served in part as an excuse for my morose attitude. I have always been attracted to the gloomy side of things.
Then, of course, there were girls, and I thought that given my naturally sombre nature the guise of poet (guise it was) might be my best chance of success in that direction.
But I think poetry began to work its true magic on me. Now I had enough money to buy books of my own, and I still have a lot of the books I bought then, along with a lifetime of book purchases that my wife wishes I wouldn't keep adding to.
I continued to write poems, but now I had examples of the work of real poets to temper my ideas about my own work. I was writing poetry because I thought that being a poet would impress people, especially young women, but with each poem I wrote, without realising it, gained greater insights into the art, and took more care with my work.
It was a frustrating experience because I could see that there was an apparently unbridgeable gap between what I was doing and poetry that would be taken seriously. I'm not sure what kept me plugging away at it, probably it was simply that, given my personality, I felt I had no choice.
Now I see poetry as the redemption that religion could never be. Poem by poem I learned something of how to do it, and at the same time the ignominious motives that I began with dropped away, and I was writing because I had to, and genuinely wanted to.
It was not good work, but living in Oxford has advantages, and I was lucky enough to meet people who could write, and who, for some reason, thought that what I was doing had promise. I mention, in particular, my friend Roger Green to whom I am very grateful for encouragement over the years. And Myfanwy, who will probably never read this, but if she does—thank you.
Then I must mention everyone at Back Room Poets whose friendship and advice has been invaluable, even if they have so often told me to get rid of favourite lines on the flimsy ground that they belong in another poem, not the one I had put them in. Without them I would probably not have started to submit poems to magazines, let alone get any published.
I can't be sure that what I have told you are the actual reasons I became someone who hopes they are justified in calling themselves a poet. The mind makes narratives for us out of remnants of memory, and it may have been other things I am not consciously aware of that took me in the direction of poetry.
Recently I have been thinking about meaning, and it has occurred to me forcefully that meaning is not something that resides in things, but something we invest things with. I realise now that writing poetry is a way of understanding, of finding meaning that makes sense. The process continues, and I hope it will until the last of my life drains away.