Where Does Poetry Come From? II

by Michael Simms

From the beginning of Western literature, there has been a dual attitude toward the source of poetry. The ancient Greeks saw the poet as a maker, and they also had the tradition of the poem being a gift from the muse. The poem is simultaneously made by the poet and it is given by a deity or spirit. In other traditions you see similar tendencies to equate inspiration with divine gifts or with spiritual enlightenment. Lorca’s duende, a supernatural force which comes to inhabit the flamenco dancer, is his metaphor for this possession of the poet by an outside spirit. The Buddhist principle of letting go of the ego in order to be at one with the cosmos; Keats’ idea of negative capability, a receptiveness to the poem; chance methods of composition such as those by John Cage and Jackson MacLow, the principle of simultaneity in which juxtaposition in itself becomes meaningful, such as occurs in the coin-tossing reference system of the I Ching; even Eliot’s objective correlative — all are versions of the idea that the poem is not something that is made but rather received by the poet. The poem stands halfway between the listener and the gods.

In the many creative writing workshops I’ve attended through the years, only once were the principles of imagination, inspiration, and creativity ever mentioned. In 1974, on the first day of class, Michael Ryan said that we would not be talking about these things, not because such things don’t exist, he said, but because no one knows anything about them, so there’s no point in discussing them. Incidentally, Bill Matthews said the same thing a few years later on the first day of class, but this time the subject that the teacher refused to discuss was rhythm. You have to understand that these are two of the best teachers, not to mention smartest men, I’ve ever known, yet, between them, they had ruled out as subjects of discussion imagination, inspiration, creativity, and rhythm. I wonder now why they ruled out these subjects which form the heart of poetry…. Perhaps the answer lies in their own uncertainty about these subjects. There are no definite answers the teacher can give, so — the teacher reasons — let’s don’t lead the students down a path where we have no map to guide us.

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