I was the featured reader at a bookstore reading series recently, and after the reading, the host asked members of the audience (all two of them, I think) if anyone had any questions for me. One gentleman raised his hand and asked that common, yet dreaded question, “what inspires your poems?”
Wow, that’s both an important and maddening question. I believe most serious poets will agree with me, that inspiration, at least in terms of writing, is a horrible and troubling concept. You might as well ask what inspires me to wake up in the morning. I do it because that’s what needs to be done at that moment.
It’s pretty common for non writers to believe that writers seek out inspiration or wait to get touched by a divine muse. But that doesn’t happen. Not once in any of my creative writing classes did the instructor talk about how to be inspired. Instead we talked about line tension, metaphors, pacing, and sometimes whether buffalo or pork sausage was better on pizza (buffalo usually won out).
Perhaps it’s because inspiration is just such a lousy word. What I think the questioner really wanted to know was where I got the ideas for my poems (sort of the same question, but different enough to be important).
Anyway, my answer was words. I get excited by words, word images, word sounds and textures and word shadows. When I read poems, I read with a pencil. I check, circle and underline words and phrases that get me excited.
When I talk about poems with other people in my monthly workshop group, we don’t talk about inspiration; we talk about the words–which ones are working for the poem and which ones are working against it.
When I get to Robert Lowell’s line “under the chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church” I get tingles. The way the consonants first choke up my throat and then the ps stumble out the lips, well that’s just marvelous.
I love William Stafford’s “On the near pine rain hangs / the way I suppose it hangs / on the far” because those words both create a clear little picture for me as well as hold shadows and levels of significance.
And when Jane Hirshfield writes of a redwood tree: “Already the first branch-tips brush at the window. / Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life” I shudder with a little bit of fear for all of us.
Is that inspiration?
To answer his question I referred to one of the poems I’d presented earlier that evening and pointed out one of the words in it: andirons. I have andirons in my fireplace, but it’s not a word I use regularly, or ever. Yet I like the sound of it. It sounds rugged, useful, a little romantic and a little archaic. The simple answer is that I was in a mood to write and I was looking for a word to get me started, so I picked that one. “That word, if you will, was the inspiration,” I told him.
Of course, the poem is not about andirons.
My dog sometimes sleeps in front of the fireplace, so I knew I could put the dog in there someplace. Without wood, there’s no fire, and without forests there’s no wood. From there a logical structure was born, and a poem was built from that.
I had no idea where the poem was going, what, if any, primary theme would emerge or any significant plan, but I had a few words to start, and I let those, along with the sounds and connotative shadows, dictate the words that followed.
That’s not inspiration, that’s process.
When I was in college I lived a couple of years with a painter. Sometimes he’d pass me a canvas and we’d paint together. And once again, the creation was about process, not inspiration. He’d put down a line or shape and let that stroke define the next one.
Sometimes subject matter starts first. I may tell myself I want to write about a specific experience or incident, but I still let process do most of the driving. Rarely do I know what exactly I’m going to write until I’m in the middle of spelling the word. That discovery is a large part of the thrill for me. Even now. Themes and patterns will emerge, sense will come forth, and then you give it more shape in the firming up process of revision.
In his book about writing, The Triggering Town, poet Richard Hugo makes similar suggestions: “Depend of rhythm, tonality, and the music of language to hold things together. It is impossible to write meaningless sequences.”
I’m not sure any of that explanation helped this audience member. I hope it helped him appreciate the poems he was hearing, and maybe helped eliminate the stress he felt in trying to “figure out” what the poem was saying. There is no muse. The truth is a lot simpler and a lot more complicated than that.