For some poets, composition is a comparatively rapid and continuous process in which line after line appears spontaneously in the mind so that the poems seem to write themselves; poets might even feel that the poems are being created by another self and that their own conscious selves merely make a written record of the dictation. Poets who compose in that way can complete a poem of, say, twenty to thirty lines in an hour or less; others struggle for a week or more before they are satisfied that the poem is complete. What makes such rapid composition possible is inspiration, a function of the creative imagination by which non-conscious as well as conscious neural information is transduced almost effortlessly from electrochemical energy into words; the words are then edited, if editing is necessary, almost instantaneously. The experience is so mysterious that one can understand why some poets and critics in the past regarded inspiration as the working of a divine or supernatural agency.

Shelley, for example, writes in A Defence of Poetry: ‘It [poetry] is as it were the interpenetration of a diviner nature through our own.’ Shelley, an atheist, is repeating received Platonic opinion about the divine source of poetry; but in attributing poetic inspiration and the resulting poems to God, Plato is knowingly denying the achievement of the poet. In the Socratic dialogue, Ion, written around 390 BCE, Plato states: ‘For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed.’ And he adds: ‘God would seem to demonstrate to us and not allow us to doubt that these beautiful poems are not human, nor the work of man, but divine and the work of God.’ If poets in the past believed that inspiration, or the imagination working at a slower and more deliberate pace than inspiration, was divine, then they also believed that whatever truths the poems contained were divine truths. But inspiration is a function of imagination, imagination is a function ofmind, and the mind is a natural feature of our humanity. Pope is closer to a modern, agnostic concept of inspiration when he writes in An Essay on Criticism:

And snatch a grace beyond the reach of art,
Which without passing thro’ the judgment, gains
The heart, and all its end at once attains.

Keats comments indirectly on the subject of inspiration in his letter of 27 February 1818 to John Taylor in his much-quoted axiom: ‘That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all.’ For the American poet, Richard Eberhart, composition was just such a spontaneous foliation. In ‘How I Write Poetry’ in Poets on Poetry (1966), Eberhart explains:

When a poem is ready to be born it will be born whole, without the need to change a word, or perhaps with the need to change only a word or two. I thus go back to an ancient theory of inspiration. It must suggest strong, active memory and an instantaneous synthesising power when the whole being, not the mind alone, or the sense of the will alone, can come to bear on life with significance.

Eberhart then states that:

more than half of my best-known poems have come to me in this way, when the being was a seemingly passive vehicle for the overwhelming dominance of the poem, which was then put down with ease, immediacy, fluency and comprehensive order.

Stephen Spender, by contrast, sometimes found composition an ordeal and yet, paradoxically, he was acutely aware of the nearness of the condition of mind that makes inspiration possible. In an entry for November 1939 in his Journals 1939-1983 he writes: ‘Somewhere there’s a fountain of words waiting to say the things I can say, only directly I set myself to will them out of me, the fears, ambitions, habits of thought, prejudices, demands of style form a barrier between me and what is perfectly clear.’ Perhaps the barrier was, and is, that mysterious boundary between mind and brain, consciousness and non-consciousness, linguistic and non-linguistic kinds of information. The inspirational mode of composition seems alluring and yet alien to the poet who composes in slower, more painstaking ways, just as the slower mode of composition seems laborious to the inspirational composer, but there are as many ways of writing poems as there are poets. What matters is the final version of the poem.

When the poetic imagination is steadily at work, poets sometimes experience a trance-like state. The creative trance is an active, precisely focused condition that occurs when poets are so completely absorbed in the act of creating that they are unaware of their physical surroundings, of body, of time and the passing of time. They are freed not only from time and place but from their particular personalities. Wordsworth recreates the experience of the poetic trance in that moment of perfection in ‘Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’:

that serene and blessed mood
In which the affections gently lead us on,
Until, the breath of this corporeal frame
And even the motion of our human blood
Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living Soul:
While with an eye made quiet by the power
Of Harmony, and the deep power of joy,
We see into the life of things.

W. B. Yeats in ‘The Symbolism of Poetry’ (1900) suggests that the poetic trance is induced by the rhythm of a poem:

The purpose of rhythm, it has always seemed to me, is to prolong the moment of contemplation, the moment when we are both asleep and awake, which is the one moment of creation, by hushing us with an alluring monotony, while it holds us waking by variety, to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance, in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is unfolded into symbols.

Yeats’ concept of the mind being unfolded into symbols is consistent with the concept of non-conscious neural networks releasing their information to the conscious mind.

Writing of Yeats, Seamus Heaney links the deliberate and the inspired in a way that seems at first to be paradoxical. In ‘Yeats as an Example?’ in Finders Keepers (2002) Heaney writes: ‘He proves that deliberation can be so intensified that it becomes synonymous with inspiration.’ Deliberation and inspiration are different modes of composition, but an act of deliberation is an act of reflection on a subject matter, of considering the significance of an experience or of a word. Deliberation can be a process of interior counselling, or interior conjuring, with words and images and ideas. It can be a way of approaching and activating the imagination, a tuning in to the beginning of a poem. Through deliberation the poet can achieve the intensification of consciousness, the state of mind that allows the creative imagination to come into play. And even when the mind is functioning at a lesser intensity, the poet through craft and artistry can invest the poem with qualities of spontaneity, immediacy and inevitability that are indistinguishable from the same qualities in a poem created through inspiration.

Robert Graves’ belief in poetic magic and a pantheon of poetic goddesses and gods is similar to Yeats’ belief in a Celtic mythological pantheon. In ‘Harp, Anvil, Oar’ in The Crowning Privilege (1955), Graves insists that the trance experience is magical. He explains: ‘I say magic, since the act of composition occurs in a sort of trance, distinguishable from dream only because the critical faculties are not dormant, but on the contrary, more acute than normally.’ And then, in a remark that is part-dogma and part- mischief, Graves adds that those poets who have experienced the poetic magic of the trance: ‘know that to work out a line by exercise of reason, rather than a deep-seated belief in miracle, is highly unprofessional conduct.’ There is, of course, no necessary division between reason and the miracle of creativity, or between reason and emotion. One faculty without the other would lead to a lesser poetry if, that is, the two could be divorced; but reason and creativity, reason and emotion, are equal components in the creative imagination.

When Spender returns to the subjects of inspiration and trance in the title essay of The Making of a Poem (1955), he writes: ‘the concentrated effort of writing poetry is a spiritual activity which makes one completely forget, for the time being, that one has a body.’ Spender’s sense of disembodiment is similar to that of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who finds phantasmagoric elements in the trance experience. In ‘Poetry and Imagination’ in Letters and Social Aims (1876) he writes of the poet entranced: ‘His own body is a fleeing apparition, his personality as fugitive as the trope he employs. In certain hours we can almost pass our hand through our own body.’

In the act of making, poets suspend most of the conscious functions of the mind and live only in the imaginative function; indeed, they are so completely involved in the working of the imagination that they forget that it is, in fact, their own imagination at work in their own mind. The imaginative function fills the mind to the extent that the poet sometimes has the sensation of the mind being contained within the imagination rather than imagination being contained by mind. The creative trance is a condition similar to mysticism in which poets feel that they are in communion with another dimension of self, the true poetic self.

Practitioners in other arts experience the same kind of creative trance. The British painter, Frank Auerbach, is one of the persons interviewed by John Tusa in On Creativity (2004). Tusa asks Auerbach how he behaves when he is painting a portrait, and Auerbach replies:

If things are going really well and I feel that it’s almost as though something arose on the canvas of its own accord […] and an image seems to call to you from out of the paint – when I’m actually in pursuit of this, I really haven’t the faintest idea what I’m doing.

Tusa asks if he talks to the canvas, and Auerbach says: ‘Yes, yes I may do but I’m really not aware of it […] I no longer quite know what I’m doing because all my conscious energies are engaged in this pursuit of the possibility that’s arisen on the canvas.’ The moment when – or rather the state of mind in which – the image seems to rise spontaneously from the canvas and call out is the moment when the creative imagination fills, or takes over, normal consciousness. Auerbach no longer quite knows what he is doing, not only because his conscious mind is wholly engaged in the pursuit, but also because the conscious dimension of the creative imagination is interacting with the non-conscious.

Ted Hughes questions the existence of the poetic trance. In ‘The Poetic Self: A Centenary Tribute to T. S. Eliot’ (1988) in Winter Pollen (1994) Hughes states that a ‘well-worked law, fundamental to psychoanalysis and to the modern secular outlook’, has brought about a new poetic self who is not affected by the power of trance. Hughes writes: ‘It has changed things for the poet by removing his susceptibility to the trance condition, the mood in which the poetic self could overpower the whole mind in a more unhindered fashion. That this susceptibility has gone is a fact.’ By contrast, Seamus Heaney is wholly susceptible to the power of trance. In his interview with John Haffenden published in Viewpoints (1981), Heaney is asked if he has a problem of self-consciousness in writing. He replies: ‘That is never a problem, because I only write when I’m in the trance. It is a mystery of sorts.’ In using the definite article, – ‘the trance’ and not ‘a trance’ – Heaney implies that the trance is not only his personal mode of composition but one that is widely known and practised.

The power of trance may have lessened but it has not been, and cannot be, eliminated. A trance or trance-like condition is a normal and necessary state of mind for the artist in the act of creating, and for many people who are absorbed in a task. In order to focus more intently on the work in progress artists must shut out distractions, and when they do this effectively the neural networks in the mind become inactive. The outlook of the modern poet is, as Hughes states, more secular. But the religious impulse, and with it a sense of the sacred, is so closely related to the creative impulse that the making of poems will never be an entirely secular activity.

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