Monday, February 1, 2016

Where do poems come from?

In recent posts, I’ve called for the writer’s personal life to be left off the table in discussions of his or her work. In particular, I questioned our fascination with the idea of risk, and our frequent assertions that poems are good when they “take risks.” (Poems, obviously, “risk” nothing—risk can exist only in the writer, who lives and feels, and the writer’s risk is simply none of our business.)

But let’s make no mistake; I do not see writers as machines and poems as factory widgets. Poems are reflections of their writers. At their very worst, they are still language fashioned toward a purpose—by people who could much more easily have been watching TV or having a good snooze. That’s a righteous pursuit.

At their best, poems are so much more than that. They usually reflect something deeply felt in a writer. They can represent the poet’s intellect at play with an even deeper self. Some people think they’re the result of contact with a superconsciousness—or visitation from a presence beyond us.

People who care about poetry fall along a spectrum somewhere in their beliefs about where poems come from. They may be a result of our intelligence, which is capacious beyond anything suggested by normal daily use. They may be inspired by our subconscious—our dream and fantasy life, our shadow thoughts. Or, at the other end of the continuum from pure human intelligence, they may be gifts we receive from beyond—from a muse, or from God, or from tapping into the collective unconscious.

The way I think of it, poems come from all of these sources. When I’m writing, my intellect is certainly engaged. It can get in the way, too, which is why I sometimes begin with an idea and then engage in freewriting to try to stir up the unexpected. (Sometimes—in the best of times—that original idea dissolves away; having served as a springboard into darker depths, it may have worn out its usefulness.)

I think all serious writers have had the experience of finding a gift on the page—we look at a poem and see a thread running through, whether image or idea, but cohesive, and speaking to us, without us ever consciously putting it there. This may be evidence that poems are the result of mystical visitation, but I think it more accurately signals how expansive the mind is—and how much we know but are not conscious of knowing. Of course it also hints at the beauty and mystery inherent in language, with its words that are exponentially more meaningful in combination with one another than their finite definitions could suggest.

Critics, whether in the workshop or in reviews, have no claim on a poet’s deeper intelligence, or presume that they know anything about a poem’s source. (Interrogating risk is one way that the outsider tries to enter the secret chapel.) But in our conversations about poetry, I do wish we would more frequently acknowledge the sacred, or at least the potential for the sacred.

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