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Thursday, 22 July 2010

Inspiration! - Or is it?

Eliot thought that to have any meaning at all, the word Inspiration must mean that the inspired person is speaking or writing something that s/he does not fully understand, indeed might even misinterpret once the inspiration has departed.

In the past, the word made sense only in a religious context, and then the devotee knew - or thought s/he knew - from whence the inspiration came. The word's Latin root - from which we get afflatus - meant a blowing on , as one might blow on a fire. Today, those - perhaps the majority - who would not subscribe to a religious outlook on life will use the word with great enthusiasm, not to say abandon. There is a feeling abroad that the fears haunting so many aspects of our twenty-first century living and casting their shadows on the job , the domestic round, whatever, may be destroying our creativity. So: good it is then, this belief in a magical something that can, just when the fire seems to be going out, happen along to blow on the embers and restore it to its former magnificence. I'm beginning to sound as though I do not believe in the existence of something called inspiration, I sense that you may be reading that into my words. Well, Eliot wasn't sure... but I'm willing to stick my neck out and say that I am a believer. It does, though, depend on what you mean when you use the word. (Doesn't it always!)

So what do people mean when they say "I was inspired to...", "I got my inspiration from...", "He was an inspiration to me...", "And then the inspiration struck..."etc, etc?

For some it would seem that inspiration is something you sit around waiting for: waiting for it to strike like a bolt of lightning, perhaps? - and when it does, you jump up, run over to the desk or the laptop, and bash off a poem. Inspiration in that sense, I do not believe in . But this is just the difficulty, people who believe in inspiration believe in different things. Conversely those who do not believe in something called inspiration, disbelieve in different things. So what are they, these different things? What is it that folk mean?

Well, s/he/it inspired me to... might simply mean s/he/it motivated me to... or provided me with a model, for or a way of going about it. We could be talking about influence or enlightenment, but either can leave one with the feeling of having been given something. Sometimes, though, more than that is implied. What is intended is to convey the sense of having been lifted by something or someone or other. Sportsmen often speak of playing out of themselves or playing beyond themselves. They are speaking of an achievement in the form of a moment of genius, the feeling that the wind is in your sails, of being buoyed up to accomplish something that would normally be beyond you, perhaps (in the case of sportsmen) by the occasion, maybe by an emotion that takes control, perhaps by a sudden enthusiasm.

Thinking about these different aspects or manifestations of inspiration, I looked to see if I could see a common component, and the only one I have been able to come up with so far is stimulus. It seems to me that they are all - or could be - stimuli to which the person said to be inspired is responding.

Eight years ago Doreen and I went to the Chelsea Flower Show. Afterwards I wrote the following poem about a garden we saw there. It was called - as the poem is entitled - Tearmann si: A Celtic Sanctuary and was the creation of Mary Reynolds. She produced a great garden. I did not produce a great poem from it. That is not why I have reproduced it. At the time I said the garden had inspired the poem. I do not think that now. The garden gave me the idea for the poem and I worked at it. We probably all know Edison's famous dictum that Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration, a quote I think could be applied equally well to creativity, leaving out the genius angle. Either way, there was no genius involved. It was a hundred per cent perspiration. In Eliot's terms, no where in it is there even one per cent that I do not fully understand - as there sometimes is, though not as often as I would wish.

Tearmann si: A Celtic Sanctuary

A place for quiet philosophy,
For poetry and song, a table spread
from fiery seed-hub to a rim
of granite boulders with a cloth of ferns,
of meadow turf, giant buttercups
and daisies, burdock, sedge and bracken.
As if a tiny particle of earth
has found its first, unsullied form.

As if a fruit from Eden’s tree,
fallen and split open, formed this friendly place
of four concentric rings: seed, watery core,
receptacle of flesh and stony peel –
The hardness of the latter softened here and there
with tufts of thrift, wild strawberry
and pennywort. A ring of elders
guards against all evil forms of thought.

Meanwhile a dry-stone arch provides the interface,
a step of pure imagination:
through the moon gate; stand
a moment on a grassy mat with three flat, sunken stones
(an ancient sign we cannot read); move on
a thought-length nearer to the heart of things;
then take a raft of split boughs, gently grounding,
snugged against an inner-sanctum, where

the thalamus is king. And here the scene is set:
from north, south, east and west, rough thrones
of granite face the pool (Of birth?
Of origin? Of baptism?), betokening
a royalty of man. Behind the stones stands Tara Hill,
whose blocks of stone once sang
And spoke the names of future kings.

Here sentences are left unfinished,
are keys we cannot turn. The pool and contents
(Stepping stones, stone fire bowl, twist of mist
with deadwood), thrones and flora,
have become a lens to focus voices,
essences and scents,
reflections from itself and lore.
And ghostly images we took an age ago.

I said above that it was good to think that there was something magical that could restore your creativity, but not everyone will think so. This is an age that believes in - if it believes in anything - self knowledge. To know yourself is the beginning of perfect wisdom, but if we are saying that there could be something blowing around in your mind that you know nothing about, well, that casts a shadow on the concept of self knowledge - to say he least.

Would it help, though, for me to say that for me the best inspirations come from the work in progress, and the emphasis there is on work. I may have beavered away at a text or one part of it, all to no avail. It will not come alight. This can be a frustrating period. I'm sure we've all known something like it. Sometimes I begin to think the work was stillborn, nothing will breathe life into it. And then, at some point when I've switched off and my mind is empty or focussed on something quite different, maybe when I'm dropping off to sleep or moments after I've woken up in the morning, a phrase (maybe more) will float in which is the key, will open up the whole dark cavern to the light of day.

There are examples by the score from most walks of life. The story is told of Sir Basil Spence designing the new Coventry Cathedral, for example. He had got the design to the point where many an architect might have been satisfied. Not he, though. He knew there was something missing. He worked at it, worried about it, but it would not come. He fretted to the point where he developed an abscess under a tooth. The dentist gave him a sedative, and under its influence he saw a concertina shape - and knew he had the missing something. If he built the walls of the nave concertina-wise he could angle all the windows so that they would direct their light directly on to the high altar.

A similar story is told of the inventor of the first sewing machine. The most intractable of the problems proved to be how to bring the thread back through the material after the first pass. Like Sir Basil, he lived, slept and ate, working on the problem. And then he dreamt. He dreamed that he had been captured by cannibals and that they were dancing round him shaking their spears. From the points of the spears streamed white ribbons - and he had the solution: thread the needle at the "wrong", the pointed, end.

I can 't say that my inspiration has ever come to me in a dream, but sleep has been an important factor. I remember as a boy if I had a problem I couldn 't solve - say with my homework - my dad would often advise me to put it away and sleep on it. It used to irritate me. I wanted to go on beavering away until I'd cracked it, but I see now the wisdom of it. But I was right, too. The work has to go into it first, then the inspiration can come.

Image: Zen Garden by Flickr user Neilio, reposted here under its Creative Commons license see here

Now I give you a poem inspired by a Zen Garden something like the one above though that is not the actual one, which had islands of moss supporting the large stones.

quarried from the solid rock
from mossy calyces -
The Kalux Islands.

Stone teats
poke through the udder-moss
as vegetation
sea-rippled furrowed

depth of stone.

Wait there.
Though you and I
may fly
souls must take their leisure
emulate migrating birds
islanding between two continents.

Here there are ghosts
full fifteen of them -
each standing stone a ghost
a ghost of something far more solid
than a stone.

Here in tranquility
will come.

Well, I don't know what you think, but I much prefer the Tearmann si poem, so I leave you with this thought: Is inspiration invariably a good thing? It is nearly always a very welcome thing, but is it always a boon? As I say, I merely ask the question. I began by pointing out that the word's Latin root meant a blowing on. Its other meaning, of course, is the near opposite: to breathe in. Some things we breathe in may not necessarily be good for us - would you not say?

Haiku #211

Not trusting their cash
they've hoarded their olive oil -
Greek peasant farmers


Rachel Cotterill said...

I struggle with the question of where inspiration comes from - usually, it seems to be a crystalization of many life experiences, projected into something new. I have often solved problems in my sleep, too. Regarding your poem, there are some lines I really like - it has promise that it doesn't quite fulfil (in my non-poetic opinion).

Eryl Shields said...

I've been thinking a lot about this lately, too. I seem to have been going around inhaling, greedily, and now my mind is fogged with it all. But it will begin to clear as I work, and only as I work. At the moment my journal is the thing, later work will come from the, seemingly, random jottings it contains. I agree with Eliot, but think that one works out meaning as one writes (or paints, sculpts, whatever), and that it's that misinterpretation that brings originality to the work.

I am reminded of a quotation I read recently from a writer whose name I can't remember, it is something like: 'I can't work unless I'm inspired, so I see to it that I'm inspired every morning at nine o'clock.'

Tabor said...

Your entire essay got me thinking. I tend to be the person who throws out word in prose and poetry like zucchini blossoms...or more likely ripe zucchini! I try to use a larger vocabulary, but I am guilty of not really understanding the meaning of words as I should. I need a good editor! I wonder how the Internet today with its millions of stimuli affect young writers. And I also was thinking about articles I had read on the mind and what happens when we dream related to creativity. There is a LOT in the blog post!

Gerry Snape said...

A wonderful essay and a whole thesis for us to get our heads around. I shall go away and think about all this and hope that I can make a sense of it for my own writing. May I say I like both of the poems but prefer the celtic garden. Is that because I'm a Belfast celt or because I like the way the words feel in my mouth and head?Thankyou. G.

Jim Murdoch said...

Having read my blog for a while, Dave, you’ll know I’m keen to demystify writing. I’ve reduced ‘inspiration’ flippantly to ‘a good idea’ and I still hold that to be true but perhaps I can expand on what ‘a good idea’ is. Everyone has their personal likes and dislikes. A ‘like’ is a complex thing. It’s something that we’re born with but which can be refined. I ‘like’ the colour green. Being dressed in green makes me feel good and even though I have no interest in gardening greenery still pleases me more than flowers. But it rarely inspires me. It doesn’t evoke a response. Something abstract like ‘loneliness’ has a far better chance because I have been lonely so many times and in so many different ways in my life. I empathise with the lost and the lonely. A solitary tree might reach me but I’d be treating the tree as a proxy, a metaphor.

Can one stimulate inspiration? I would have to say that one can but what I’ve learned is that artificially stimulated inspiration is like a cultured pearl – there’s something lacking. The resultant work feels forced. At least it does with me.

I actually agree with what Eliot had to say. But then I don’t see the point in writing about what we know. That’s just plain boring. Writing is about discovery. I still write because I have much yet to discover about myself and the world I live in.

Inspiration has never come to me in a dream. Not even half a good idea.

Tara McClendon said...

I tend to view inspiration as some type of motivation (or stimulus) coming from outside of my own self. This could be seeing a work of beauty in a garden, or hearing a thread of music, or meeting a person who could easily step into the pages of a story. As far as I can recall, I have never heard an individual say he inspired himself. Great post.

Dave King said...

I very much like your suggestion that inspiration is a crystalization of many life experiences, projected into something new. I think there is a lot of mileage to be got from that.
I, too, think the poem does not fulfill its promise. I have to say that I am very fond of it - the Tearmann Si poem that is - but do not have any illusions about it.

Thanks for the comment. Your experience very much reflects mine in the way you describe working it out in the process of creating.

I also very much like the attitude behind the quote with which you finish.

Yes, if - as I believe - inspiration is very much a matter of stimulation, then the question of the part that the internet plays or could play in that becomes very interesting indeed. It is a fascinating point that you raise, and one that I had not considered in that form.

It's good to expand the vocabulary as much as possible, of course, to enlarge the word pool, as they say, but I do not think you need to worry that you need more larger words. Simplicity is a virtue in itself.

Thanks for that. I think Belfast may very well come into it. I have always found myself drawn to the Celtic strain. I think if I was to name my top ten poets (who would vary from time to time) six of them would be either Scottish or Irish - and that wouldn't change.

Yes, I have followed what you have had to say about inspiration on your blog and have felt the demystifying aspect of it to be both convincing and timely. To a point I have been persuaded by it. Your elaboration on it brings it more clearly into focus - before reading your comments I would have expected you not to agree with Eliot, for example.

I also agree that writing what you know is boring. Difficult to see why anyone would do that - except, maybe, as an exercise.

Welcome and thanks for the response. I, too can see inspiration as stimulation. Self-inspiration sound a bit improbable, I agree.

Kass said...

What a thought-provoking post. I have long been fascinated by words with the root 'spir' in them: transpire, expire, inspire, respire suspire, perspire, conspire, aspire. They all suggest breathing and spirit. The Latin root for all these words is all about the breath of life.

I like the Latin adjective 'spirabilis' - that which may be breathed or 'able to breathe.' You've asked if it's always a good thing to be inspired, to take things in? I say a qualified "YES" if what you are taking in is full of life and spirit. But I don't think it can truly be called inspiration if you are not at a level of reception to recognize it as such.

Dave King said...

And that is a very thought-provoking response. Thank you for it. I certainly agree with your "full of life and spirit" proviso.

Marion Mccready said...

I'm a believer in inspiration, that little spark from an experience, an image, a sentence from which the poem is birthed. Everyone talks about it in different ways but for me it's that heightened moment of the senses that makes a poetry live.

Dave King said...

Hi and welcome, thanks for the comment. There seem to be more believers than unbelievers, but you are right, everyone does talk about it in different ways. I do believe that Eliot was on the right lines, though.