“However tenuous the relationship between the inspiration and the final poem, that ‘moment’ in which something happened to make you pick up your pen remains your only connection with the obsessive process of writing that followed.”
What lies behind a poem is mysterious. A poem’s ‘inspiration’ is often unexpected and sometimes barely reflected in the final result, while being yet the cause of it. Inspiration opens some path you never saw before, which you follow with little or no idea of where it’s going. If the resulting scribblings don’t get crumpled, but end up next to your keyboard, a full scale obsession is underway.
If a poem comes of this, it derives less from that arbitrary moment of ‘inspiration’ than from the obsessive work that follows, which won’t let you rest. When you think it’s finished, there usually come still more revisions, which can sometimes go on for months as you struggle to get it ‘right’. Eventually, you hope some editor will accept it. However, if it’s not accepted anywhere, and even with a low to nil success rate, poets will I suspect continue to enter upon this obsessive, time-consuming, financially unrewarding task which carries little social cachet either, these days.
Why do it? It’s because this creation of an ‘art object’, separate from oneself, yet formed of your subjective experience, seems like the closest thing to a purpose you can manage to feel, and that could be a definition of happiness.
None of all that explains what makes it happen, though, or where it comes from. It doesn’t explain the fact that a poem can be centuries or even millennia old and still move us in our utterly different, present world. One’s own preoccupations as an individual don’t seem like answer enough to account for the source of poetry. And the fact that a poem is ninety-nine percent hard work and only one percent inspiration still leaves you in the end with ‘inspiration’ as the only thing that you have to go on. However tenuous the relationship between the inspiration and the final poem, that ‘moment’ in which something happened to make you pick up your pen remains your only connection with the obsessive process of writing that followed.
The words themselves show how ancient is the attempt to explain it. The word ‘poet’ takes us back to the Greek poiētēs, meaning ‘maker’, which describes the nature of the work. The word ‘inspiration’ is from the Latin, inspirare, meaning to ‘breath into’, which describes the arrival of that ‘moment’ that drives you to pick up your pen. The belief still persists among some people that this is how God speaks through human beings, breathing into them the ability to see and voice truths, maybe as poems, maybe as sermons. ‘Inspiration’ also implied a state of ecstatic possession. In Greek mythology, the muses were water nymphs who poured a sweet dew on to the tongues of the chosen.
I believe we connect readily with these ideas, for the reason that the passing centuries have produced no better answers. We still don’t understand why we hang on to that moment of ‘inspiration’, following it to wherever it takes us, trying to ‘make’ something of it. The compulsion to ‘speak’ and illuminate something that comes to you remains as mysterious as the ability of emotions to range across millennia. Even when translated from the dead languages of cultures starkly different from our own, we can still feel something of those fundamental feelings of remorse, grief, love, disappointment, guilt, horror, bliss, joy or wonder.
Whatever it is that is ‘breathed into’ someone at some unexpected crossroads of thought and feeling, bringing about that obsessive urge to ‘make’, has a timelessness and universality attached to it. It’s like a record of itself which humanity insists on keeping, a record that perhaps provides the closest understanding we have of our human composition. Perhaps it’s an understanding that can say no more than that.