As I entered The Empty Hourglass Pub and looked around
for a place to sit, a man in a brightly coloured, chequered shirt
looked up from the sheet of paper he had been scribbling on and
stared in my direction. As we both noticed all the tables and
barstools were occupied, which was far from unusual in The Empty
Hourglass at this hour, the man indicated the empty chair at his
table, kindly inviting me to join him. I plunged headlong into the
smoke-filled atmosphere of the place, lit by multi-coloured lights
to dazzling effect, and shot the man a thankful smile as I took my
"Good evening," I said. "Very nice of you."
"The pleasure is mine," he replied in a voice as warm as
the look in his eyes. Although he had spoken softly, his words had
effortlessly drowned the brouhaha filling the pub, as if our meeting
had reduced our surroundings to mere background.
"Can I offer you a drink?" I asked, feeling compelled to
return a favour. "Thank you, I'll have a Guinness," he said, and so
I ordered our first round. As we waited for our drinks, a warm smile
curled his lips and made his eyes light up. "Do you come here
often?" he asked.
"I am by no means a regular," I said, "but I drop by
every now and then."
"I must have seen you here before," the man said. "I
come here almost every day. I work here." He pointed at the sheet of
paper in front of him. I shot a glance at it and saw it was covered
with graceful handwriting, a true exercise in calligraphy.
"Work?" I asked, not quite grasping what he meant.
"I'm a writer," he explained. "I mostly write poems. You
can find me here about every evening, writing my third and final
draft of the poem I've been working on that particular day.
Occasionally I might do a short story instead, but I tend to view
myself as a poet. Poetry has this special kind of magic no other
type of writing has."
"I see," I said, nodding appreciatively. "But isn't this
place rather inappropriate for such an activity? Can you work with
people talking, music in the background, smoke whirling around you?
It seems to me a quiet place would lend itself more to delicate
creative writing than a pub filled to capacity like this one."
The man nodded, and the multi-coloured lights reflected
in his glasses danced and shook, leaving me disconcerted for a
moment. "I understand what you're trying to say. Let me explain my
method to you. I write my first draft in the morning. Usually I go
for a stroll in the park, and then I take a seat on a bench, a pen
and a notebook ready on my lap. When inspiration starts to flow I
begin to write, undisturbed by any outside influences, alone with my
muse, surrounded only by chirping birds and buzzing insects. Of
course you're right that the typical atmosphere of a pub filled with
party animals swinging pints would detract me from this phase of my
"I do my second draft in the afternoon, at home, in a
quiet room that I also use in the morning on rainy days. I don't
mind having someone around when I'm in the middle of this second
phase, as the main creative work has already been done by then. Now
we've come to the point where the poem or story has virtually
assumed its final and definitive shape."
"I understand," I said, finishing my Guinness. "The
third and final draft is mere polishing of the poem, applying the
finishing touch. Finding yourself in the middle of a crowd of
boisterous drinking partners can't bother you at that point."
"On the contrary," the man said. "An environment like
this forges a link with the real world, reestablishes my connection
with common everyday reality, which I find stimulating in a way and
which enables me to chisel and mould my poems into the exact shape I
want them to have. It's here that I reach perfection every night, or
at least that I get as close to perfection as humanly possible. Here
my poetic ambitions reach their acme. Here I find my highest
A short silence followed, and as our gazes turned to our
empty glasses it struck my newfound friend that another round of
Guinness had to be ordered, and so he did.
"You must have produced quite a body of work already," I
said as the waiter brought our drinks, "if you write every single
day as you just explained."
"Oh no," he replied with sudden force. He took the sheet
of paper lying in front of him and held it up. "When I come back
home, later tonight, I will destroy all the drafts of this poem.
Nothing will remain of it. It will slip back into oblivion where it
"I beg your pardon?" I asked, completely baffled.
"It's a ritual I perform every night," he continued.
"Every night I destroy what I have created, thus completing the
cycle I have started. By doing so creation and destruction are in
perfect balance, and there is no way any artistic expression can be
more meaningful and more symbolical."
I stared him into the eyes, totally incredulous. It was
clear the man was not joking or lying. He had meant every single
word he had said. I swallowed, licked my dry lips, tried to come up
with a sensible question, but the man noticed my unease and
bewilderment and offered more words of explanation without being
"I tend to view art, and poetry in particular, as a
symbolical representation of man's life and his place in the
universe. If a poem is to represent fully the human condition, it
should reflect man's doomed nature, the inevitability of death, the
fundamental futility of all man's endeavours and ambitions and
goals, the essentially tragic nature of fate and existence."
"So, exactly like the subject it is supposed to
illuminate, your art must perish," I said, having regained my
faculties of speech.
The man nodded, glad that someone understood - or
seemingly understood - what drove him.
"So none of your stories or poems has survived?" I
asked. "Nothing of yours has been published? Wouldn't you like to
see a collection of your best work, or at least a few poems in
magazines? Don't you miss a sense of fulfilment, don't you crave
some gratification for all your painstaking efforts? The way you're
working now you'll never have anything resembling a literary
"Publications, literary fame, awards, money..." He made
a sweeping gesture with his hand, as if he wanted to encompass the
entire universe. "Wouldn't the pursuit of all that be at right
angles to the philosophy behind my work? Wouldn't I be aiming for
some kind of brittle immortality that is actually bound to remain
out of reach, except perhaps for an all too brief period that does
not really matter? Shouldn't I resist the lure of fame and fortune,
and persist in my chosen method that truly exemplifies my artistic
credo, my deeply symbolical coupling of creation and destruction, of
yin and yang, of birth and passing away..."
"I suppose you're right," I mumbled, and took a gulp of
Guinness for want of anything meaningful to say. How could someone
spend all these endless hours writing and rewriting, polishing and
refining his work until it was perfect, with as sole purpose to
destroy it all at the day's end? What drove this man? And how could
he earn a living if he wasn't paid for all his writing, and if there
was little or no time left, judging from his daily schedule, to do
other work? The man looked too young to be retired. Maybe he was
rich, and didn't have to work?
Or perhaps earning money too was utterly futile, another
losing battle fought against inevitable doom? But still the question
remained how this aiming at the true essence of art by destroying it
allowed him to keep going and to give meaning to his life...
The man shattered the silence that had been building up
by saying he had to visit the men's room, and left. In the few
moments I was alone, I picked up the sheet of paper and read the
text my friend had written.
It was a brilliant poem indeed.
It was at least as good as the poetry produced by
writers considered leading talents. It was extremely well-written,
rich with symbolism and laced with hauntingly deep philosophical
thought. It was unquestionably great art in its purest form.
I read the poem over and over, until it was etched in my
memory. Then I let the paper slide back onto the table, looked up
and saw the poet of doom reappear. We chatted for a few more minutes
about rather trivial matters, and then he excused himself, saying it
was getting late and he should be heading home.
He took the sheet of paper, put it away, wished me a
good night and left. I ordered another Guinness, sat back and let my
thoughts roam. No doubt the man would destroy his poem, as he had
done with all its predecessors, and would do with all its
Only today's poem would not quite be destroyed as
effectively as all the others - for I had read it, and memorised it,
and it would live on in my mind. I might even note down the lines,
and allow the poem to survive for even longer than my memory would
My reading the poem had broken a chain of events that
would otherwise have gone on uninterrupted. Would it make
difference? Would it change anything substantial in my life, in the
poet's life, in the grand scheme of things of which we were part? Or
would my efforts to read, memorise, and possibly reproduce the poem
prove as futile as anything attempted by mankind, an exercise in
pointlessness that merely illustrated the poet's theories'
Maybe it would be better if I forgot the poem, if I
erased the whole incident from my mind.
But I proved unable to do that. The poem hovered before
my mind's eye like an advertising billboard in glaring neon light,
impossible to ignore. Was this symbolical as well? Was it an
incentive to keep the poem alive, to prove that man's creations
could survive if only the will to do so was strong enough?
I finished my Guinness and left the pub. As I walked
home the incident gradually faded in my mind, but the glaring neon
lines of poetry didn't grow dim.
I could feel that as soon as I got home I would note
down the poem before I retired to bed. It would survive. One way or
another. Who knows what I might decide to do with it, who else might
inadvertently lay eyes on it, what might eventually happen to it. It
might one day see print, albeit anonymously.
It might be noticed. It might be nominated for an award.
It might be reprinted, anthologised, kept in print for a long time.
And all that because the man had left me alone with the
poem for a few minutes. A thought struck me. What if he had done so
on purpose, knowing that I would at least glance at the sheet of
paper, in full view in front of me and begging to be read? And how
would this fit in with his theories, and my counter-theories? Had it
all been a show, a masquerade? Had I fallen into the trap he had
prepared for me? Or was I simply betraying the confidence he had
shown me, would I brutally and unforgivably shatter the man's deeply
cherished ambitions by carrying out my plan...?
More and more ramifications surfaced in my mind,
possibilities and hidden intentions unfolded, possible manipulations
and eventual destinies presented themselves...
A long train of events had been set into motion.
Lost in thought, I continued on my way home, knowing
that this time coming home would only be a starting point.