Photo by Rohan Makhecha on Unsplash
I want to start with an anecdote: I was at the pub after a poetry reading in London. I found myself in conversation with two very different species of poet: a young whippersnapper straight from the Oxford colleges, and a seasoned editor. The whippersnapper said he wrote a poem on the way to the reading, that suddenly those impulsive winds of the muses confronted him on a London bus. That he writes because he has to, compulsively, and feels it’s a sort of calling. The editor scoffed and seemed almost uncomfortable — a row was brewing. After a considered sip of Guinness, he lifted his head to the young lad and said: “Well, don’t you feel that’s all, I don’t know, pompous?”
Speaking about ‘inspiration’ has become embarrassing for the contemporary writer: most now tend towards speaking of the more clinical ‘writing process’, emphasising the importance of wider reading and routine. Yet get any writer worth their salt two-pints into a conversation, like the aforementioned whippersnapper, and most will admit to experiencing the strange sensation of writing almost automatically, as if a spirit has entered their body and they become mere scribes for something confoundingly, terrifyingly spiritual. One ‘admits’ to bad habits, to smoking, to watching pornography: why is ‘inspiration’ now similarly maligned as a vice?
This state of affairs has not always been the case. Early Greek thought acknowledged a ‘furor poeticus’: a divine frenzy in which one is overcome by poetry, which can be induced by both writing and reading. The Romantics waxed and waned about those various muses. So why this new sense of embarrassment? Harold Bloom wrote in Anxiety of Influence that “poets historically emphasize an original poetic vision in order to guarantee their survival into posterity”. But what does “survival into posterity” mean for a writer when the economic circumstances to live as one are paltry as ever, when there is such a deluge of content in the riptides of the internet? An identity as a ‘writer’ is often now prefaced in conjunction with a wide-range of other, augmenting identities: teacher, researcher, female, white, working-class, and more. If writing is experienced as a ‘calling’, what one is being called towards might be more obscured and hyphenated than ever.
Another element in its fall might be that ‘Inspiration’ as a concept, as being inherently self-mythologising, is intertwined with madness. In his controversial paper, ‘The Sylvia Plath Effect’, James C Kaufman tracks tendencies towards mental illness across various writing disciplines, finding that poets are most susceptible to psychological instability. In a bid to find out exactly why this may be the case (though my immediate thoughts turn to the economic: give poets money!), a range of interviews found that poets feel the least sense of agency over their own craft, often citing “inspiration” as something they are beholden to. Their identity is attached to being a poet, but those moments of feeling like a “poet” come only in jolts, which seem to come, apparently, from nowhere.
So perhaps poets should be suspicious about putting inspiration on a pedestal. Perhaps more than other literary practitioners. Within recent history, the stakes seem real. One might remember Robert Lowell’s eulogy for Sylvia Plath, where he confidently asserts that it was writing the Ariel poems that killed her. The self-aggrandising mythos of inspiration, of being ‘called’, seemed a scapegoat as to why Lowell went mad, John Berryman jumped off the bridge, Anne Sexton gassed herself in her car. Their letters and diaries seem to see this as the case. Berryman said in an interview: “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.” Sexton describes leaving one of her many stints in a mental hospital and writing an entire book in a few sittings: “Staying up till three A.M., and getting up again at six. Writing in seizure, practically not stopping; maybe not even drinking; maybe just gobbling my meal and then running back in here and writing again. The poems were coming too fast to rewrite. Not a ‘compulsion’. I hate to use the word because there must be a better one. But could I say ‘a seizure of inspiration’? Compulsion puts it on the level of neurosis.”
This appears to not have ended well for them, and the writing of poems became synonymous with manic episodes, or even bouts of psychosis. The tortured writer is no longer romantic. We approach anything that might link us to its troubled past with trepidation, even the very mechanisms by which it works. To refer to my earlier anecdote, surely only someone pompous, pretentious, and the rest, would identity themselves with it?
Some of these reasons for the apparent fall of speaking of ‘inspiration’ are more mundane. We need to look only at the university. Can one teach inspiration? The way it’s spoken of, it seems like a mystical experience that happens to some people; to, quote, ‘real writers’, and eludes others. As creative writing instructors, you can help with the editing process, and help students with the dissection of their own work. Funding applications want to look at objectives and aims: there is no money for the ‘trust me bro’ process that is inherently hard to qualify, and one where it’s impossible to predict when and where and how it will come. One doesn’t want to cultivate a conservative impulse around gatekeeping, delegitimising those who might not have the space and time to simply be inspired. It’s useful to remember that when Harold Bloom writes of those who have “poetic visions” to ensure their longevity, his canon was almost exclusively upper middle-class white men.
So. Can inspiration be saved from these trappings, or should it remain abandoned to greeting cards and business focus groups? I believe a renewed literary focus on the process itself, and an examination of its parts, can help qualify, so to speak, the experience without demystifying it. I then will argue for why inspiration is worth saving as a concept overall. Defining ‘inspiration’ with more clarity, and examining some of the tenets common to the state, might be able to a useful starting point.
I’m going to explore this through two very different writers. This is to show that, while the output of a period of ‘inspiration’ is bound to differ across genres and writers, the phenomenological experience itself seems to share key similarities. We’re going to look at Victorian poet and Jesuit priest Gerard Manley Hopkins and contemporary writer Selima Hill — I believe they both manage to make some of the as-sociative leaps ‘inspiration’ might grant a writer transparent by pushing them to extreme levels in their verse.
Both writers have referenced their reliance on ‘inspiration’. Hopkins wrote to his friend Robert Graves: “The word inspiration need cause no difficulty. I mean by it a mood of great, abnormal in fact, mental acuteness, either energetic or receptive, according as the thoughts which arise in it seem generated by a stress and action of the brain, or to strike into it unasked.” In an interview, Selima Hill speaks of struggling with a particular poem, when suddenly a bout of “inspiration” strikes. She says: “This felt like an enormous relief. As if a knot had at last come loose. And then – at the risk of sounding like someone gazing into a crystal ball – I was ‘getting’, I was seeing… the vivid orange of the plastic, the jolly buoyancy, the chubby shapes, their shininess, the way you breathe air into them, like someone giving The Kiss of Life…This felt good. And I finished the poem easily and happily.”
These two quotes show the state of inspiration as unique because of its associative power. The associative leaps one is able to make when inspired are unique to every day: patterns and connections emerge where there might not have been any before. So how can we quantify this? How does this manifest in their verse? Social psychologists Thrash and Elliot formulated a tripartite conceptualisation of literary inspiration in 2003, isolating three core characteristics of the process: evocation, transcendence, and approach motivation. These are seen clearly here: a transcendence with Hill’s image of “gazing into a crystal ball”, and the energy to finish the poem “easily”. The “energetic” and “receptive” state that Hopkins formalises.
So how do these associations work? What are these mechanisms on a more concrete level? While working on this paper, I sought a language to quantify the types of associative leaps made in reference to these poets. I found a lead, strangely, in the language of psychiatry, in reference to psychosis. I was struck by how many of the diagnostic criteria in a few therapeutic texts did seem to mimic the process of inspiration, particularly when writing on mania, an elevated state commonly seen in Bipolar Disorder, and psychosis.
A common delusion spoken about is ‘thought insertion’. The idea that a being has posited ideas or thoughts in your head that are not your own, which has strong parallels with these ‘sparks’ spoken of by Hill and Hopkins, and other poets. Another is grandiosity: the idea that one is unique in having these special abilities, to relay a message. I think back to Harold Bloom’s assertion the poet has a “vision” to “ensure their survival into history”: is this not a bit grandiose? These speak for themselves in their relevancy — I was surprised by the more specific concepts.
‘Clang association’ is the tendency of a psychotic person to make associations with rhyme: talking about a bat might lead one on a tangent about a hat, completely unrelated. Is this not the very strange leaps forms like sonnets seek to emulate? Similarly, pressured speech, and flights of ideas (where a propensity for puns and tangents is part of the very definition in the DSM) struck me as particular facets of inspiration. ‘Pressured speech’ maps directly on to Thrash and Elliot’s ‘approach motivation’. Neologisms and finding significance in seemingly insignificant events or images are also the bread and butter of creativity. We only look at a few lines of Hopkins and Hill to see these facets made transparent. Consider these opening lines from Hopkins’s poem ‘Spelt From Sibyl’s Leaves’, which starts with this description of the sky:
Earnest, earthless, equal, attuneable, ' vaulty, voluminous, . . . stupendous Evening strains to be time’s vást, ' womb-of-all, home-of-all, hearse-of-all night. Her fond yellow hornlight wound to the west, ' her wild hollow hoarlight hung to the height Waste; her earliest stars, earl-stars, ' stárs principal, overbend us
There is a palpable urgency. The long lines seem to suggest his ideas are struggling to come out, fighting for relevancy over each other. An image like “earliest stars” resolves into “earl-stars, stars principal”, demonstrating ‘clang association’, as do the numerous alliterations. The music of the poem seems to rule how associations are drawn into new images: sensations are echoed with one’s mouth as they read it. Hopkins links “womb”, “home”, and “hearse” together with the repetition of “of-all”, the images arriving in a swift and almost frantic flight.
Let’s compare this to Selima Hill. In her poem ‘The Accumulation of Small Acts of Kindness’, a long sequence about an experience of postpartum psychosis, Hill compulsively rhymes and writes in metre. Consider these opening lines:
Whatever’s the point of writing it all in code? Supposing the coat is a monk, and the sofa’s a young horse; and supposing the photos are real? Darling, I love you. I want to stay here in the dark forever
Here, you get a soup of images that might, at face value, seem like ‘word salad’. It’s excitingly disorientating to figure out how these symbols relate to each other. The coat and sofa are animals and people, then the photo is not another object: it is ‘real’. This eschews the parallels set out earlier, breaking her own rules and going on her own tangents. “Darling, I love you” seems to have no clear relationship with the previous: it’s up for the reader to fill in these gaps and track the patterns the speaker is making in this heightened state. The final line of the first stanza, “I want to stay here in the dark forever”, resolves into iambic pentametre, a talisman which is summoned and rejected throughout the sixteen-page poem. An anchor for the mishmash of ideas and images she guides the reader through.
Earlier I said the link between inspiration and self-destruction and mental illness has been to an academic and creative detriment: so why at this point, use the language of psychiatry so heavily? I am not seeking to medicalise, rather elucidate in some of the only vocabulary available. Perhaps identifying it as a transient and controllable madness can reclaim a writer’s agency over it. And by dissecting how various associative elements work, one might be able to conjure the state without waiting around for the mysterious ‘spark’ that puts these mechanisms into action: Thrash and Elliot’s ‘evocation’.
So, with this: Why inspiration? I have two main points I hope I’ve argued: a lack of embarrassment from writers on the experience of ‘inspiration’ can help build confidence in writers in reference to their craft — that it almost is an elephant in the room when writing and teaching to ignore this element of the creative process — and that reading poems through the lens of inspiration-process could be a fruitful investigation into the mechanisms of writing. I even wonder if, to herald back to Susan Sontag’s famous essay ‘Against Interpretation’, if a revival of thinking critically about inspiration could be part of her vision of an “erotics of art”, that she thinks could give a renewed vivacity to the humanities. After all, do we not deserve a little magic? Contemporary critic Rita Felski postulated in The Limits of Critique whether a dismantling urge of humanities departments, to poke holes into the works they profess to love, is a possible element used to justify the systematic dismantling of the arts. Reading and writing in reference to the mystical impulses behind these works, instead of downplaying for fear of being like the aforementioned Oxford whippersnapper, could assert the humanity’s important place on knowledge’s mantel.
Kaufman, who first linked inspiration to madness and destruction in ‘The Sylvia Plath Effect’, has revised this assessment in his more recent works: he even deems some of his research as exploitative. In recent investigations, he’s interviewed writers to find that, in fact, inspiration itself is a life-affirming experience, that builds confidence in their work and promotes their overall well-being. It’s feeling as if they have no agency in the face of which that causes difficulties.
Thrash and Elliott have done work on the contagious element of ‘inspiration’. They found that students who were reading poems when primed with reference to ‘inspiration’ — that these poems had been written under its strange influence — were more likely to go on to write their own in the preceding days. If these are true, ‘inspiration’ as a concept should not only be revitalised as an area of academic enquiry, but perhaps a potential life-blood to the discipline itself.
With this in mind, I want to end with the final volta of a Keats poem, which affirms this sentiment. It’s about his experience of reading Chapman’s translation of Homer, and the invigorating “new planets” of thought and discovery that inspiration upon reading can wreak:
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold: Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken; Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men Look'd at each other with a wild surmise— Silent, upon a peak in Darien.