Monday, March 13, 2006


I was interested in this article from the Guardian on “divine inspiration.” What struck me was this quote from T.S. Eliot:

“If the word ‘inspiration’ is to have any meaning,” TS Eliot wrote, “it must mean just this, that the speaker or writer is uttering something that he does not wholly understand—or which he may even misinterpret when the inspiration has departed from him.”

I think most people would agree, or at least pay lip service to that idea, but it’s a weirder definition of inspiration than it seems at first . Usually when people think of inspiration, they think of an “Aha! experience.” For example (SPOILER WARNING), when David Chase wracks his brain to figure out how to end the first episode of The Sopranos, he must go “Aha!” when he gets the inspiration of Tony being shot by his own uncle. Once the inspiration comes, it immediately feels right. This is typically what inspiration means to scientists and detectives and cooks (“What shall I serve tonight? I’ve got it—goat curry!”) and, yes, poets.

When Shakespeare ends King Lear with Lear’s heartbreaking “We will sing like birds in the cage . . . ,” or has Lady Macbeth say “unsex me here,” it’s inspired but he understood what he was saying, didn’t he? When Dickinson imagines a fly buzzing around her deathbed, it’s inspired but comprehensible. Usually we imagine inspiration as the cliché light bulb. Suddenly we know what panel to press to open the secret door in the Temple of Doom. Eliot’s idea of inspiration that in effect leaves us in the dark is a pretty radical idea!

I’m exaggerating to make my point. Inspiration typically happens somewhere between light and darkness, in the shadowy realm of the inspired “hunch.” But poets vary widely in how far they want their reach to extend beyond their grasp, their words beyond their understanding. If it’s too far beyond, all criteria are lost. We haven’t found the secret door, but who cares? We can write “cackling sinecures behold local rumors of Arnold” and call it inspired. Why not? Maybe it is, if inspiration is by definition beyond your ability to know whether or not it’s inspired.

But genuine inspiration feels utterly right and mysterious at the same time. As someone said, it would not even have occurred to any other actor in the world to make the choices Marlon Brando does in the “contender” scene in On the Waterfront (the radical gentleness, for example, with which he pushes aside Rod Steiger’s gun), yet it feels utterly natural.

As far as how this relates to my own writing, well, I wrote “Sleepwalker,” the poem Diane links below, years ago, but I swear it was only when I reread it a couple days ago that I realized it could be about a man discovering his wife’s infidelity (“One night I found you pumping / from the neighbors’ well . . .”). You learn something new every day—especially in the dark!

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