Denise O’Hagan

Where does poetic inspiration come from?

There seem to be no deals you can make with poetry to entice it out of its lair. A poem, actually any writing, is always a private thing, and that is how I begin. It must have that secret source.’

(Michael Ondaatje, author of The English Patient and twelve poetry books)

The Oxford English Dictionary defines inspiration literally as ‘a breathing in or infusion of some idea, purpose, etc. in to the mind: the suggestion, awakening, or creation of some feeling or impulse, especially of an exalted kind’. Most of us can relate to this, and can recognise in ourselves, at one time or another, that feeling of being so moved that we ‘have to write it down!’

Although there are those poems that, in the first flush of poetic inspiration, just seem to ‘write themselves’, this is rare. You don’t usually just decide to write a poem, sit down, and write it. You have to be in the right frame of mind and mood; it has to come to us. This is true of most creative endeavours, and particularly with poetry where there is no canvas to prime or scales to practise; it begins, quite simply with our own mind and spirit, and a pen and paper – or keyboard. We all know that feeling when we finally have a moment of peace, and sit poised and ready to write, yet the words don’t come. It’s frustrating, even vaguely disturbing for here is something that appears to be not subject to will or discipline; it is out of our control and beyond our understanding.

Yet perversely, and as we also all know, in the midst of a completely unrelated activity such as walking the dog or taking a shower, words – and good ones, too! – may arrive unbidden, apparently out of the blue and we have the urge write them down then and there. And if we don’t, like dreams, they are apt to slip away, sometimes for good.  

So in short, when we focus on our art, it often eludes us; when we focus on something else, it may grace us with a visit. Inspiration, it would seem, is capricious, and also something that happens to us rather than something that we will to happen. It would seem that what Ondaatje terms ‘that secret source’ of poetic inspiration is precisely that – ultimately mysterious.

Small wonder that the ancient Greeks believed in the Muse, the goddess of artistic inspiration. Greek mythology portrays nine such goddesses, personifications of literary and other arts and also science, and it is no coincidence that the poetic art claims three of them (Calliope for epic poetry, Erato for lyric poetry, and Euterpe for song and elegiac poetry).

Fastwind to the modern era, and it seems that psychologists agree that some externally-inspired form of inspiration plays a strong part in unleashing artistic creativity. Thrash and Elliot’s ‘inspiration scale’,* for instance, encouragingly suggests that inspiration is accessible to us all as it centres around our readiness to being receptive to external possibilities rather than an innate ability or predisposition.

If this is the case, while we may agree that we can’t chase or ‘capture’ inspiration, it would appear that we can at least create conditions conducive to receiving inspiration. While these conditions may vary somewhat from person to person, the common denominator would seem to be their simplicity – it is in doing the essential things that we all to earn a living and nurture ourselves and others that we find our inspiration. If Thrash and Elliot are right, it is our sponge-like quality of receptivity which can turn a routine happening or observation into fodder for a poem.

After all, great poetry does not always centre on great themes but often on the mundane, the specific and the highly individual. As Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove notes: ‘When I least expect it something strikes me. Just now, for instance, we were driving westward and stopped at the West Virginia welcome station, and I looked at the woman next to me who tucked her purse between her legs to wash her hands, and that little action triggered something in me—I suddenly thought of all the things we do subconsciously to keep things neat, and the way women carry purses around.’

Perhaps the current surge in mindfulness and meditation is relevant for poetic inspiration. For the more we are able to lose ourselves in the moment and keep our every sense alert, the greater our potential for empathetic observation and making connections, including of the ‘what if?’ sort. But I would suggest that equally we must be wary of taking a modern outcome-focused approach – in other words, you must school yourself to be attentive because you want to of and in itself, not because of where it may lead you or what you’re hoping to get out of it. There must be a sincerity, a disinterestedness at the base of your approach – and an element of surrender to the rhythm of life itself. 

To sum up, while the source of poetic inspiration itself may remain mysterious, the attitudes we can adopt to help make us more conducive to receiving them are less so. Slow down, be mindful to little as well as big things, and keep a notebook handy so you can write when the Muse visits you!

*Thrash, T. M. & Elliot, A. (2003). Inspiration as a psychological construct. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 871-889. 

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