This month has been the launching season for my new collection of poems, Nefertiti in the Flak Tower. Not many younger people, I have been discovering, know what a flak tower is, or was. Perhaps I should have called the book something else. One of the poems in the book is called ‘Whitman and the Moth’: it might have been wiser to call the book that. Early in the launching season I was asked to read the poem aloud on that excellent radio programme Front Row. The poem is a meditation on the old poet at the point of his death and I’m afraid I found the right voice for it exactly.

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I have been exhausted for more than two years now, by illness. Leukaemia is practically the least of my ailments. In a lull between bad stretches the Saturday edition of the Telegraph kindly asked me to review television. That was about a year ago and we have now completed my first year on the case, so this month has been my first annual holiday. I tried to time it so that the book launch could fit into the slot. When you are short of energy you have to ration it. So far I have managed to look busy by doing one thing at a time. Put it all together and it’s a decent fraction of the work I did before I fell ill. I still feel guilty, however, that hours go by when I don’t touch the keyboard.

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I doubt if illness improves the concentration. Though its individual perceptions take thought, a critical column is comparatively easy to construct because it is cumulative. This column you are reading now counts as a general column and it will have to have an argument. In a general column you have to tackle a subject, and my subject, by force of circumstance, must be about how I have been so sick that almost nothing else has happened to me.

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Or not much that shows. So far I’ve been lucky that way. Various clinics stick needles in me but I look reasonably intact. The major action is going on in the soul. Everything has become personal. Famously productive until his death, my old friend Christopher Hitchens had a memorial service in New York. Almost everyone I knew was there. I would have been there too but I was not allowed to fly. I was envious of them. Even less nobly, I was envious of him. I read his obituaries: he had attracted so much love. What would be said of me when I was gone? I almost was. Why not devote myself to the form of writing that has always mattered to me most?

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But poems don’t necessarily come to you when you ask them. It is more than six months since I have had a poem in the works. I suspect the direct reason is one of the drugs I am on, but there is an equal chance that I am simply in a dry patch. I was drugged to the nines when I lay in New York’s Mount Sinai hospital last year and wrote ‘Whitman and the Moth’. I pride myself on that poem’s nifty construction. When poetry doesn’t come, the first thing that doesn’t come, as it were, is a structure. The combinative capacity isn’t there. It might be there for prose, but with prose you know what happens next. With a poem, only the poem knows what happens next, and you must wait for it to speak. It can take years.

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Near the very end of his life, Hitchens wrote a brilliant piece about Philip Larkin. Some of his recent American admirers were surprised by how literature mattered to the Hitch but those of us who had known him longer knew that his love for the language was his bedrock. I was not convinced, though, by some of those editors among his American obituarists who wrote of how he would take home a huge new book and read it and review it in a single evening. I think he probably just reviewed it in a single evening.

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The Hitch’s afflictions hurt badly and he was brave to bear them so well. Those of us less painfully stricken are obliged to be of good cheer. The whole process of being kept alive against such relentless natural forces is, after all, very interesting. It takes all the science in the world. Most writers don’t see much adventure after they become successful. Well, here is their chance. The hospital that looks after me, Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge, might as well be Cern. And in addition to the luxury of being the centre of so much attention, one is contributing information to the last and greatest battle, between mankind and nature. Even as we waste away, the measurements of decline go to swell the data bank. One is thus less useless than one feels. My scientist daughter caught me making a bad joke about the failure of the proposed NHS central computer. She explained that such a computer would be an essential tool for the future. So there is a politics to one’s demise, like it or not. 

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Diary, Health, Poetry