Where does poetry come from?

This may seem like a silly question: poets write poetry. But there happen to be different philosophical perspectives about the source of poetry. One idea proposed (and embodied) by William Blake is that poetry is “dictation” from an outside source. Later (in the 1950’s and 60’s) poet Jack Spicer elaborated upon this idea in the following excerpt from his Vancouver Letters:

I think that the first kind of hint that one has as a poet, after having written poems for a while and struggled with them, a poem comes through in just about one-eighth the time that the poem usually does and you say “Well, gee, it’s going to be much easier if I can just have this happen very often.” And so then you write 17 or 18 different things which are just what you are thinking about at the particular moment and are lousy. It isn’t simply the matter of getting a fast take. Its something else. But the fast take is a good sign that you’re hooked up to some source of power, some source of energy.[1965]

I gather from Spicer a reverence for an unkown outside source from where he received “energy”, and at energized times the poetry flows unhindered. I think we’re back to the question of inspiration (and, for poets, it behooves us to wonder where inspiration comes from). Inspiration may feel like an outside entity. I feel cautious about placing my hopes on an outisde, objectified entity, because it places me at the mercy or whim of this outside force. Or, if I make a mistake and am not reverent enough . . . what then?

I do believe that as an artist or poet you learn more and more every day about the circumstances, states of mind, and general state of physiological comfort (or discomfort) during which the work flows. And ultimately, it comes down to doing the work. The more time you put in, the more likely you will have work you like, and the more naturally the work flows.

I take a point from Jack Spicer’s reflection on dictation about “hooking up to a source of energy”–I consider this source to be partly the energy that naturally exists in the universe (which is abundant and continually at work on us whether we know it) and partly energy that we free up within ourselves, however we find a way to do it.

For me, sticking to a routine in my daily life is helpful. Yoga in the morning, running in the woods on the weekends. Painting helps the poetry, poetry feeds the painting. Lots and lots of omnivorous reading, listening to Great Lectures series on a variety of topics during my commute. Peace and quiet when not at work (as much as possible). As much as possible to slow down, and become more aware of my surroundings, with a childlike sense of curiosity and wonder. The childlike sense of wonder is essential, and even subversive.



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