When Samuel Beckett was asked to write the libretto for a short opera in 1958, he managed to complete just one line before abandoning the project: “Je n’ai pas envie de chanter ce soir” (“I have no desire to sing tonight”). He was even less enthusiastic about his poems, describing them at different times as “worthless”, “spittle” and “turds from my Central Lavatory”. Yet from his early collection Echo’s Bones, to the haunting lyric “What is the Word” he wrote shortly before his death, Beckett produced a thin but steady trickle of poetry. In some ways this was the imaginative heart of his career.
Writing poetry allowed Beckett to reconcile his deep love of language with his equally deep distrust of it. Here he could indulge his taste for opulent phrasemaking within a form that was always at risk of breaking down, before finding the strength to continue. As a poet, Beckett repeatedly found himself saying, like the narrator of his 1953 novel The Unnamable, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”