Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

03 August 2018

Procrastination has its merits, says Malcolm Guite

I AM a master of the art of procrastination. The more urgent a task, the more I want to postpone it, and those rare occasions when I have neatly re-shelved my books, or even tidied my study, are all testament to how desperately I wanted to avoid the actual task in hand.

If you’re looking for distraction, there is an entertaining little book, The Art of Procrastination: A guide to effective dawdling, lollygagging and postponing. But it’s more than just one of those jokey books kept on bookshop counters to tempt you while you’re making your more serious purchase; for its author, John Perry, is a Professor of Philosophy at Stanford, and, in among his many amusing accounts of postponement, he makes some serious points.

The chief of these is that, in spite of their reputation for idleness, procrastinators are often very productive. This “Paradox of Procrastination”, as he calls it, arises from the fact that, to avoid whatever they perceive as “Task A”, the thing that they are dutifully bound to do, procrastinators immediately take up something else, “Task B”, with great alacrity.

But, quite often, “Task B” produces something wonderful: a poem, a play, an inspired bit of scientific tinkering or thinking, in which the natural gifts of the procrastinator, unstressed by a sense of obligation, suddenly find creative release.

This was certainly true of Coleridge, who threw off the The Ancient Mariner as a kind of escape from his Big Project, which was to be an epic poem about the nature and origin of evil, followed by six odes, one on each of the four elements, and one each on the sun and the moon. Coleridge spent the rest of his life berating himself for his abject failure to produce this great epic and these major odes; but, of course, as every reader, except the poet, knew, The Ancient Mariner is his immortal epic on the problem of evil, and includes a poetic celebration of the four elements, and of the sun and the moon.

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This is not to say that everything we do to avoid “Task A” is always quite so good. Sharpening pencils, arranging pens, and, of course, scrolling through Facebook and Twitter can all seem appealing as “displacement activities”. While deadlines concentrate the mind, they also make every distraction more alluring. Suppose a man were sitting down, finally, to write his weekly column. He might suddenly be tempted to reorganise his desk and then to write a Meredithian “sonnet” about it, like this “Preliminary Ritual”:

First there is the clearing of the desk,
Displacing chaos for a working space,
And then the putting of each thing in place:
The pen and paper, ready for the task.
And then there is the opening of the pen,
The lifting of its lovely silver cap,
Which fits back on the barrel with a snap
Leaving the golden nib exposed. And then
With pen in hand you try a line or two
On scrap paper, you have a little go
To test how well both thought and ink might flow,
Hoping to find that both are coming through.
And so they are, but both are poor and thin.
Will they be turned aside by this harsh age?
Your pen is poised above the empty page:
There’s nothing for it now, but to begin.

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