J. T. Robinson
Poetic Experience and
Poetic Process, Part One of Two
Paragraph One Follows: 1:
Northrop Frye writes in The Educated Imagination that within the ‘motive for metaphor,’ in the writing of poetry, exists the human desire to communicate thoughts, emotions and feelings. However, excepting this emotive concept of poetry as the general, given assumption for most middle-class, American poets, each type, if you recall Emanuel’s division of poetic types, also shape their work toward the issue of meaning. I agree that for the most part, meaning resides with the reader’s activity within the formal method of scholastic explication, at least as a beginning point.
Still, I believe that readers are deceiving themselves if they think that poets do not have some idea of why they are involved in poetic process. Also, keeping in mind Wimsatt’s idea of “The Intentional Fallacy,” and the notion that poets perhaps, cannot control the meaning of their work toward any single interpretation, I believe there exists a certain limited range of poetic intention. One fact of influence most contemporary, American poets share is a certain degree of academic knowledge.
Regardless of whether the given poet respects the notion of scholastic study, even in the Eliotean sense, there exists a certain level of awareness that many believe most poets should be aware of if they are to take the craft of writing poetry seriously as mental activity that produces the work of art that is the poem. This situation of poetic creation, before the work finds completion, from beginning to final form, is the subject of this chapter.
Donald Hall says in, “Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird: The Psychic Origins of Poetic Form,” that discussions of this aspect of poetry veers too far toward the unknown or obscure areas of artistic creation and that such discussions would yield little insight for the craft of writing poetry. I would like to stop discourse at this point, look at the poetic process from the moment of origin up to Hall’s beginning point, the mind, and then proceed from there.
When I speak of poetic process, I mean to draw attention to a peculiar kind of mental activity. This activity takes place after the initial urge to create, though includes the urge itself and whatever form the urge takes, either in terms of activities which produce ideas or feeling in the poet, though also after these elements take shape as the crude literary expressions which become the work itself.
Few literary works exist which address the psychic-emotive origins of poetry, mostly for good reason, though I believe there exists value in this type of sifting and sorting. Such discussion may help clarify a poet’s nature and aesthetic goals, provided such talk resists psychological jargon, pragmatic or phenomenological discussion, even though these aspects would represent valuable sources of insight as to the kinds of questions poetic process and poetic experience raise for the poet. These two ideas exist in mutual relation to each other.
Poetic experience is a term used to describe any human experience which influences the origin of the poem; thought, action, memory, listening or feeling. However, it seems to me that poetic experience remains less tangible than explicit thought or feelings. When I use this term, I intend to draw attention to that intuitive feeling that is almost ineffable, that moment when the poet feels, though is motivated to create from a less than certain mindset and makes decisions about the work of art which are not entirely conscious. This state of mind could be described as “inspired” or “intuitive.”
During this phase of creative process there may or may not exist emotions or feelings motivating the writing which also exists as intangible, though strongly felt. These feelings also exist in degrees of depth and are not always the same. Sometimes they are grounded in profound experience, like that of the sacred, sometimes a lesser feeling of the rudimentary creation or contemplation propelled by curiosity. This then exists as the true relationship between poetic experience and poetic process, which is the whole written endeavor after the fact of thought and written draft including every stage of revision.
Some literary matters exist as a fact of context and others as mostly theoretical — what a work says or illustrates as opposed to the aims of the artist or the process involved in its making. For myself, that sense of urgency or inspiration, an intuitive feeling similar to spiritual experience, itself, remains inconstant, or is rather stronger some of the time and weaker in terms of influence at other times. I believe this to be the norm of human existence.
However, this intuitive, creative urge is always first and is also what I have been calling throughout this writing, poetic experience. First this feeling, which takes many forms, attention, euphoric insight, emotive or descriptive notation, though the feeling itself remains more like a mood the poet returns to and uses in the making of a poem, though is a state of mind consistent with visionary writing. In this stage or type of writing numerous possibilities exist. The work could take one of many possible directions. It is from and through this state that a poet will utilize a poetic process both general and unique to the given poet. All poets create their work through different means. Elder Olson believed there were only three types of poetic process, though I am not so certain of everything he outlines or advocates in his essay, “The Poetic Process” and will reserve my discussion of these issues until a later point in this chapter.
Regardless of the experience or process which gives birth to the work of art, the very nature of language also plays a significant role. All language is metaphorical. This fact consists of the nature of language systems as a collection of signs which constitute referents, symbolic names for the full range of experience found within common, human existence. This theory was established in Saussure’s introduction to his introductory text on Linguistics. The purpose of language systems is to communicate experience. While I do not consider myself explicitly a L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poet, the fact of the metaphorical nature of the sign exists as a strong influence in my work.
This condition of language remains one which certain literary discourses fail to acknowledge as fact. It is this fundamentalist ignorance that I resist and call into question as well as all extremist ideologies which would result from this attitude. Language is exact, systematic and in its operations, functions like a tool. The attitude that resists the understanding of the nature of these operations fails to understand the true nature of language. The sign always stamps something into meaning from nothing, or rather, from the impulse and experience that is more immediate than language itself.
Why then do people write poetry? Our language systems have existed for thousands of years, though much of what takes place or is communicated through poetry has not changed. What is the purpose of a poem? Is it literary artifact, a private expression made public, a political tool, a work of art or an intellectual conversation piece? Naomi Shihab Nye once said, “A poem is a place where we can put things together maybe momentarily and maybe only for ourselves — that energy may not be there for someone else reading or hearing the poem, but I think energy is a primeval, basic aspect of poetry” (321). I’m certain that Gerard Manley Hopkins felt that energy in life. Many of the“Claims” poets also speak of this quality in good poetry. Various poets describe this power as “kinesthetic,” another “psychic weight,” another “kinetic” and “inverse.” All of them mean the same thing; that the work of art that is the poem carries the potential to move us or draw attention to what is communicated.
One idea that became common in the study of poetry after the new critics was the notion that poems have speakers. This separation of the poet from the work and treating the poem as a ‘closed’ system, a mixture of language and literary elements somewhat distant from what we would call utterly private communication. This distance remains one of the most basic tendencies in literature, perhaps originating in Aristotle’s Poetics as the standard of the poet’s creating not only from material events that are actual or historically real, though also those things that are humanly possible.
Denise Levertov writes of a helpful distinction in her essay “On the Function of the Line” between private and personal material in writing serious, academic poetry. She calls “private” the material “which have associations for the writer that are inaccessible to readers without a special explanation from the writer which does not form part of the poem” (Claims 271). This is usually what is called “confessional poetry,” a descriptive term popular in the 1960s, what Sylvia Plath called ‘cries from the heart’ in poetry. Levertov then says that “personal,” however, “may incorporate the private, has energy derived from associations that are sharable with the reader and are so shared within the poem” (271). These issues form in part a past popular issue of argument concerning the content of poetry.
In the 1960s and 1970s the issue of the role of identity in poetry was a common issue of discussion. Poets would publish essays on obscurity, ambiguity or the role of the “I” and persona in contemporary poetry. Theodore Roethke would frequently characterize this issue as similar compared with that of a novelist who creates characters for narrative. In “An American Poet Introduces Himself and His Poems,” he says one goal of his work was “to trace the spiritual history of a protagonist (not “I” personally) but of all haunted and harried men” (23). This characterization remains essentially the same as described twenty-six years later in Levertov’s essay. This is the same ‘distance’ I spoke of earlier between self and society, between the private and personal aspects of the poet’s material.
The poem always represents a statement of thought or feeling closely related to or drawn from experience of the real “I” that is the poet. Thinking about this issue as a poet, it is difficult to remain as detached as Roethke’s characterization. Yes, literally on the page, that’s not “I,” or me, obviously though, yes, always emotionally and as drawn from human experience as any anecdote or prayer — that is always from the self, the “I,” the poet writing. How can these emotions expressed not be some part of us? Unless admittedly, the poet would state things in persona, which even then, as Kinnell tells us, maybe most explicitly relatable, most evocative of the innermost emotion.
However, I don’t mean to simplify the issue and say that one’s poetry illustrates one tendency or the other. It will be obvious when a poet’s biographical information is known to what extent the poet has drawn upon the private to make his or her poetry personal, more universal and relatable. The fact that a poet like Roethke used a term such as “protagonist” to describe the speaker of his works, still does not remove any authenticity from the work in question. It should be clear at this point, even though there may be a fine line between material the poet draws on for the work of art and to what extent it is ‘fictive,’ this condition of poetry exists as a natural ambiguity of the language of art.
To further complicate the issue of poetic process, for poets of inwardness, “biological,” as Bly’s claims, or the organic-intuitive dispositions, a change must take place or is at least continuously being strived after, similar to spiritual transcendence. In turning inward, the poet confronts the ego and all superficial trappings of human experience to access the real emotions at the core of that person’s life.
Galway Kinnell writes metaphorically of this process in his 1971 essay, “Poetry, Personality and Death,” when he says, “The death of the self I seek in poetry and out of poetry, is not a drying up or withering. It is a death, yes, but a death out of which one might hope to be reborn more giving, more alive, more open, more related to the natural life” (235). None of the “Claims” poets talk explicitly about the religious origin of their inwardness. In fact, if we look back as far as Richard Kelly and similar writers from the beginning of the 1960s, we may in fact find the roots are more-so grounded in the emergence of American academicism and the sudden scholarly interest in comparative religions.
Traditionally, the Hindu and Buddhist faiths speak of human experience as an obstruction, especially the idea of a “self.” This problem is usually resolved through learning a method from a teacher or guru to achieve enlightenment with the goal of realizing a higher truth. Sometimes this process involves changing one’s entire way of life, sometimes only one’s thinking and interactions with those around them. Conceptually similar, inwardness remains politically aligned with a liberal, democratic ideology. Even though the idea has been taken up in the past ten years by Formalist poets of a rather conservative nature, however even these practitioners are of mixed dispositions.
Despite such differences, inwardness remains the same for poets of this disposition. Other theoretical differences, such as the concept of a “speaker,” or the “I” of one’s poetry, may complicate the reading, though such complications exist for good reason. They become resolved through careful study of the poet’s critical thought and literary expression.
I find it an incredibly interesting fact that poets of three distinct literary types could utilize the very same disposition, though create works of such unique and different forms. Practical and New Critics gave us a body of knowledge that has enabled us to talk about literature and to explore new aspects of language that have since the turn of the century been considered in ever-more complex aspects, historically and structurally. Our literary critical history is forever entangled with the concepts and ideas that came before us as we create and learn of new theories, such as the period of initial widespread growth America saw in the 1980s.
There may exist a conflict between New Critical detachedness and the idea of inwardness as conceived by the “Claims” poets. If all poems have speakers, then the “I” of the work or any detached observations communicated originates from the poetic process of the poet, though since there remains much thought and even revision, the work has been shaped toward a certain end in terms of public presentation or study. A persona operates in the same manner through opposite means. The poet selects a character or a specific disposition through which to communicate, somewhat like an actor plays a part in a performance. This persona is another form of an imagined speaker.
Galway Kinnell discusses the advantages and disadvantages of persona in, “Poetry, Personality and Death.” In using personae, you can access emotion through taking on this role that could not be communicated because of social norms or habits. Personae permit an acceptable freedom. I suppose the use of the persona in consistent practice could help a poet become very good at developing empathy or this very form of expression. However, there remain several disadvantages. The use of Persona is an evasion of self as inward poetry is supposed to transcend “self” to access the authentic feeling. The use of Persona can also become exploited, over-used and seem artificial, like a mask. Even though this is what the actual use of persona is — using a mask to communicate. Use of a mask, however, may carry implications of one’s inability to face or deal with emotions.
If we came to know literary conventions through the Practical and New Critics, one cannot help but also assume the first programs of literature also expressed a generalized pre-disposition of teaching, a generalized poetics, which in turn influenced the poet. Such a disposition would seem to already have effaced the problems that even “Claims” poets faced. We tend to forget however, that often these literary ideas remain the products of people who are experiencing life’s problems at different times and under different circumstances than those involved in doing the work now. What then, is the goal of inwardness? What is the problem in the first place?
Many poets of inwardness tell us that poetry is one type of response to the problems or conflicts of life. One way of resolving internal conflicts is through one’s art, literally through poetic process itself. One idea frequently encountered in this attempt at resolution is the human ego, the unshared, closed “I” or self. Kinnell says that in this confrontation the poet moves “toward a poetry in which the poet seeks an inner liberation by going so deeply into himself — into the worst of himself as well as the best — that he suddenly finds that he is everyone” (228). If a poem is autobiographical, the fact is not a detraction or flaw if the work of art that is the poem is good. Kinnell says that “whatever is autobiographical… is transmuted, opens out as the inner autobiography of us all” (228). What is this liberation or resolution? What does it mean to see the other within yourself? Do they mean humanizing Scrooge or a more gradual change throughout the life and work of the poet?
Many poets of inwardness tell us the goal of their approach is transcendence. A change of the self must take place. As Roethke says in “I Teach Out of Love,” “You roar, not from a true disquietude of the heart, but from growing-pains” but from “spiritual teething” (139). Hall says this conflict results in a resolution that is the work of art (“Claims” 147). The common goal then remains a change of the self, the same as any religious conversion. Why? Kinnell writes that it is in our human nature to identify with other people. “What do we want more than that oneness which bestows — which is — life? We want only to be more alive, not less.” (230). Typically, this oneness is achieved through religion or a form of spirituality.
I think poetry achieves two things: first, it permits us to relate people with whom we otherwise could not nor would not communicate. The poem is itself a work of art that communicates a message. Second, poetry fulfills the deeper aspect of answering life’s mysteries or resolving problems. Somehow the work of art provides closure for the poet.
The issue of scientific objectivity is a central one in literature. Simic says in “Negative Capability and Its Children” that the situation of the poet is like this: citing Hegel, he says that there exists an imperfect correspondence between mind and objective reality and “given the fact that this ‘imperfect correspondence’ is the product of a critique of language which since the Romantics has undermined the old unity of word and object, of concept and image, then modern poetics is nothing more than the dramatization of the epistemological consequences of that disruption” (400). Thus, the moderns and their ideas evolved from these conditions in America, though much more slowly because of the Great Depression and World War II. After this time, generations also grow and change and develop their own ideas. A flourish of literary ideas developed throughout the 1960s and into the 1980s. There was a genuine mix of living writers and literary critics writing about, rediscovering earlier poets or groups. There were also a great many scholars applying these thoughts to more contemporary issues or writers. The Postmodern age had begun and new literatures were emerging even from this time and after.
Galway Kinnell describes the issue without any historical or philosophical discussion. In “Poetry, Personality and Death” he says, “somehow it happened that the ‘mind’ got separated from the rest of us. It got specified as the self” (231). The result of the proliferation of disciplines and events — not just any single thing. This idea, he also calls psychological detachment or “scientific spirit” in the quest for technological improvements that are intended to better our lives” (224).
Simic’s essay remains very meaningful in terms of its relevance for innovative directions, which I discuss in another part of this essay. I disagree with characterizing modern poetics as “nothing more than” the “dramatization of the epistemological consequences of that disruption.” If people were already familiar with certain challenges in life, or forms of mutual mental detachment such as would normally occur in their use of logic and reason, even familiarity with literary elements like personae, would permit acceptable detachment without trauma or culture shock, then there hasn’t technically been a disruption.
There seems to exist two kinds of mental activity intended for opposite purposes, though each for logical reasons. One kind, scientific, helps us think better so that people can solve problems of a material nature. The poetic, the more subjective or visionary activity, speaks to the fact of our being human, our personal desires, wants and needs — our spiritual aspect. In many of these theories we are supposed to use science the same way labs use formulas to make stronger, safer materials for human use and commercial products. Through this method, this theory of using language to express the self and its problems or conflicts, the problem is resolved in creating a work of art that unifies the individual with a greater reality, which in and of itself re-established the ‘old unity’ and re-forms it literally in the spoken or written word and the work of art that is created. Even if the work is an expression of disagreement, a connection has been made, a dialogue has been established which negates the detachment of difference that adroitly separates.
These poets though, were not the only ones to have theories about poetry. Keats’s ideas of “Negative capability” and the “Vale of Soul-Making” have been adapted here with the “Deep Image” or what some critics call the “subjective poets,” though without any direct reference to the fact at all. Eliot borrowed his concept of the “Objective Correlative.” The Age of Johnson poets borrowed part of their innovative ideas from the Metaphysical poets of almost a century or more earlier. Of this borrowed nature of the poetic process of the poet, Louis Simpson writes of the “deep image,” that they were called such, to “describe images with a certain psychological resonance or dream-like quality. But only the name is new… “deep images” were created by poets writing many years ago” (“Images” 23). What can be said then of all these borrowed ideas which form much of the latter, mostly conscious stages of the poetic process? Is there any new ground, any thought worth salvage in the face of so much already accomplished? The “Claims” poets tell us these questions are always the individual poet’s choice. Factors too numerous to discuss here contribute to a poet’s nature and character or whether they practice theory.
Poetic process is not, respectfully, ‘poetry as process,’ as in the poetry of E. E. Cummings or similar poetry. Poetic process is not what is known in literary criticism as ‘the poetics of process.’ Nor is it to be mistaken for those visionary modes of writing usually characterized as modern or postmodern, or as some also have described this type of literature, “process writing.” That way of writing may be an attempt to illustrate process, though they are not the same thing. What I refer to as poetic process is the writing of poetry from the first inklings of sensation, either in thought or feeling to the moment words are formed on the page. Also, poetic process includes revision of material throughout work drafts to the final form that becomes the work of art that is the poem.
However, unlike Robert Frost, I would not choose analogies of disintegration to illustrate the process of reading a good poem, the poem as melting ice or otherwise. Poetic process is creative and regenerative: it involves intuition and attention and throughout this attention the decisions a poet makes work towards a final form though may also serve to remove aspects that in the poet’s judgment are not necessary. Poetic process is developmental and constructive whereas inwardness remains more difficult to define, a quality of the work of art though also a shaping sense, a contributing force itself artistic and spiritual at the same time. Poetic process has direct bearing on all issues that follow the creation of the work; nature of the poet, the question of style, form, the role of a poet in society, concerns theoretical or aesthetic.
Elder Olson published an essay in 1975 titled, “The Poetic Process.” In an all-too-self-assured tone reminiscent of T. S. Eliot himself, Olson claims to have identified three types of poetic process, though dismisses them for his own conception he calls “effective activities” of the process. The great faults of this writing concern research, the general argument of his concept and the implications of making the argument he makes. Olson says that poetic process has been a popular topic in literary publications over the past hundred years. Despite such a fruitful and robust field of reading, he limits his citations to only six scholars; W.L. Schramm, Rudolf Arnheim, W.D. Snodgrass’s “The Finding of a Poem,” Paul Valery’s “Poesie et pensee abstraite,” T. S. Eliot’s 1961 “Introduction” to Paul Valery, the Art of Poetry and vague references to Plato and the philosopher David Hume.
Here the reader will not find discussion of Emerson’s essay “The Poet,” Jung’s 1922 or 1930 essays on literature and psychology, not even Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, not Wordsworth’s “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” or even the names of major contemporary poets then being published in the same periodicals as he across the United States. Regardless of this glaring fault, the work stands as a classic example of academic elitism.
In On Value Judgments in the Arts Olson outlines a theory which hinges on the concept of something he calls “effective activity,” which does not appear to be the same kind of activity other writers across America had been meaningfully engaged with at the time. On the opening page, he cites numerous examples of what the poetic process is not; rational, conscious, voluntary, not analogous to other processes of art, to communication, to scientific thought, it is not biological growth, psychological growth or political growth (220). Before Olson explains his own theory, he describes the three most common forms of poetic process in the six sources he does cite. The first, Schramm’s “stage type,” generalizes the process and discusses faculties or activities involved, then arrange them in logical order to illustrate the various stages and periods of the process. The second, Valery’s type, describes the working habits of an individual poet in terms of characteristic external or internal circumstances or conditions. The third type, exemplified by Snodgrass, concerns the history of the composition of a poem.
Olson finds fault with these types in equal measure. He says the first generalizes too much and that these accounts are not founded on what is “essential and peculiar to the poetic process” and are only based on “resemblances which it may accidentally bear to other processes” (Olson 221). The second and third types share the same fault. He says they exceed in “particularity and are based upon what is peculiar either to the individual poet or the individual poem; hence they present the process as inextricably entangled with its accidents” (221). This brings us to another word frequently repeated throughout Olson’s essay, “accidental,” which along with “obtains,” begs for further clarification. The reader does not come away from the reading feeling as if they understand the argument, only with more questions about the argument and its grounds.
The only validity I can assent for Olson does not actually concern his argument, but his definition of “unconscious” and the points he raises concerning the nature of creative activity. Here, he says:
Caught as we seem to be between the hopelessly uniform One of the stage theory and the hopelessly multiple Many of the particular descriptions, we may as well ask whether there is such a thing as the poetic process. If it is a process, it ought to have a definite beginning. Where does it begin? If we are talking about the order in which a poet happens to do or experience something, there is abundant evidence that the process can begin anywhere — with a phrase, a rhythm, an image, an idea — anywhere. If the poetic process has no definite beginning, does it have a definite ending, as processes are supposed to do? One might be tempted to say that it does, that it always terminates in a finished work. But when is a work finished? It is finished only when the artist, for one reason or another, ceases to do anything more to it; in short it is, as Valery says, not so much finished as abandoned. The “finished work” is thus simply the result of a process arbitrarily arrested. The best warrant of completion is the satisfaction of the artist — a satisfaction which, as any artist knows, may be purely temporary and which may be justified or not, and which in any case does not prove that the process might not have continued indefinitely. If there is no definite ending, is there any definite order in which things must happen in between? Here again, we have abundant evidence that there is not. (222).
Despite this multiplicity, I believe there to exist a process, though prior to this an experience common to all people which allow for slight differences of one aspect or another. He defines “unconscious” as referring “to the skill which is essential to art, habit so perfectly instilled that it has become second nature, activity which is unconscious because it has become automatic” (223). The author then argues that the nature of the poet is the central problem. He says, “our difficulty has been that we have tended to interpret the poetic process in terms of the activities of the poet as man rather than as maker of a specific product” (224). Isolating one part of the whole does not change anything.
Olson sounds as if he’s arguing for an arbitrary process. One could apply the very terms “conventional,” as in Allan Seager’s biography of Theodore Roethke where Seager discusses Roethke’s poetic process as more consciously deliberate, revising and incorporating material from notebooks he kept throughout his life. Though you could also describe the process as “unconscious,” as even in Olson’s thought, to the theory of poetic process quite easily.
Olson however, argues for a wholly conscious method, though resists inclusion of the intuitive aspect. This does not discount the issue that a product is created. The poet as “maker” is a classical idea and one we see even in some concepts of contemporary theory. To make a point in Olson’s favor, one could assent to the fact that even though one’s process may involve an intuitive process, one’s writing always has the arbitrary cause of consciously performing the act of creating from the material one uses. I am not an advocate of “automatic” writing or similar methods. In this way, the writing of poetry remains always an arbitrary action from beginning to end.
Poetic process is “rational” in the sense that you can become aware of the factors that influence your creativity which enable you to write effectively. Even from this seemingly conscious orientation the process, after the arbitrary decision to write, is not arbitrary but intuitive. The importance in this respect is the way in which creation takes place. Just because I make a conscious, rational decision to sit down and write does not mean the entire process is conventional. The process or the will to begin poetic process remains utterly voluntary. If I have chosen to initiate it, how can it be anything but voluntary except in the aspect that perhaps at times I feel “moved” or “compelled” to write. So much for Olson’s wonderful description of this aspect on page 223. Only in this sense does the poetic process assume its Jungian-like, “alien” will. I would characterize the poetic process as an intuitive, half-conscious way of feeling out how the work forms itself through the poet’s shaping and creation of the work of art that is the poem.
Finally, this brings me to the political implications of Olson’s theory of poetic process. The crux of his argument relies on what he terms “effective activity.” He says that poetic process begins “whenever a part is constructed to function as part of a determinate whole” and only “so long as the parts constructed continue to function with respect to the same whole” (Olson 224). The implications of making such a statement indicate a position of cultural elitism. If a part is constructed to function a certain way as part of a definite whole, this means the poet is aware from the beginning what they are trying to write and that process and product only exist as artistic activity and works of art within a specific set of parameters. Like pieces of a puzzle that are made to fit together, they are only valid as possible parts after they are made. Such pieces will only “fit” one way in relation to the whole. The only logical, poetic context for such a view is literary formalism. Therefore, the only logical conclusions from these statements is that only a formal poetry remains valid as poetry in Olson’s conception. You could not speak of free verse unless you had a poetic concept of line or somehow involved literary elements themselves.
Typically, poets do not speak of lines or literary elements as parts. When this term is utilized, it usually means a preconceived unit of a conventional whole; for example, a sestet in iambic pentameter as a part of a sonnet, a refrain as part of a villanelle or a six-lined stanza as part of a sestina. Since such a view excludes all other poetries, Olson’s formalism can be said to be inherently ethnocentric because of its origin from within a “received form.” Numerous defenses authored by holistic or democratic scholars of this type of formalism have been published since the mid-eighties.
As if such implications were enough to keep one honest in the academic community about the nature and goals of one’s discourse, perhaps the aspect that most confuses the reader in the reading experience of this essay remains its Sophist aspect: the manner in which Olson rapidly states an opposing idea, provides little or no grounds for proof and in some instances follows a logical sequence of thoughts only to turn them toward some conclusion or idea that would normally lead one to an opposite conclusion, both about the theory posited and the statement just made. There literally exist moments in this essay where the argument appears to shift toward a conception of the whole creative experience or where important insights and realizations take place, though the only thing that the reader experiences are reverted shifts of argument where Olson appears to communicate an insight, only to return to the circular reasoning of his own theory — a theory ungrounded and with little or no research to back up the claims he makes.
Other problems persist. Elder Olson takes one hundred years of scholarly writing and research on the idea of poetic process and reduces it to three concept types. That’s fine, Jung reduced human existence and history to only two types, though he did not exclude anything. The only problem of reasoning in Olson’s three-type-conception is that he does not seem to realize that they can also be described as one process with slight modifications to allow for natural human differences. When he argues against the history of working habits and the history of the composition of the poem, he claims they are impossible because of the multiplicity of poetic process citing T. S. Eliot’s Introduction to Valery’s book. Not to speak ill of the deceased, Olson not Eliot, though perhaps if Olson had read again “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” he would have reminded himself that “multiplicity” does not mean the same thing as “unique,” that in reading again about how an individual poet can communicate within a tradition his relation to history is a synthesis of history, tradition or disagreement and that sense of his individuality which is himself. English poetry is just as rich or diverse as American poetry and one should not need Northrop Frye, respectfully, to tell us so, though obviously, Olson would have benefited from his “Towards Defining an Age of Sensibility.” The claim that there exist, ‘as many ways of poetic process as there are poets,’ is a logical fallacy (Olson 223).
Just when Olson raises valid points which could lead toward a realization of the whole experience of artistic creation, he doesn’t see the forest for the trees. The reasoning and conclusions concerning multiplicity on this page are valid, though they do not change the aspects that are common for everyone in poetic process. The varied nature and depth of academic subjects and material in our own age remains even more-so than 1975. Still, an effort should be made to understand even those arguments or theories with which one finds disagreement.
Olson goes to great lengths and effort to define his use of the term “unconscious,” saying he does not ‘use the term as psychologists [do].’ How can any scholar speak of mental activity and not utilize the basic terminology of another discipline which specializes in that concept when this would help us better understand the nature of the processes involved? Psychological Types defines “unconscious” as “a psychological borderline concept, which covers all psychic contents or processes that are not conscious” (Jung 483). Olson’s usage refers to a condition in which a person is not aware of the skill of making. On the same page and writing of his own experience, he seems to be about to reach an insight on the whole process where he says his
own experience is that, while the power of discursive reasoning… is greatly reduced, the intuitive powers are greatly extended, so that what might have been the conclusion of a long sorties is seen immediately without the intervention of any middle term” and “any rational activity during the process does not feel like reasoning; and ideas and images become more vivid than impressions of sense… (Olson 223).
In the very next paragraph he argues for a purely functional conception, sounding himself like the New Critical methods he later rejects. Despite this, he says his concept applies to “a poem — of whatever sort,” the “effective activities” model excludes those aspects relevant for the person creating the work (Olson 223). He then limits the scope of his discussion to the Classical genres of Tragedy, Comedy, Epic and Lyric — all pillars of any conceivable type of poetic formalism — the source of metrical measures, formal forms and literary conventions which at one time in American history were understood as the highest standard of any ‘good’ poetry written.
One of the points of agreement I experienced in reading Olson’s essay took place at the conclusion where he discusses three advantages to the study of poetry and literary criticism using his theory. He says that his concept of poetic process will make it possible “not merely to illuminate the method of the poet, but to judge his craftsmanship” and discuss “the art of poetry as the poet himself looks at it, insofar as he is looking as poet” (Olson 224-225). Isn’t this what would find consideration in the discussion of ‘stages, working habits and compositional history’? Further, wouldn’t discussion through New Critical methods develop this discussion through the inclusion of the literary ‘parts and making’ he so advocates?
The second advantage, removing “distortions” and discussion of “deficiencies,” seem like practical goals for any logically-minded scholar. One does not need a special theory of poetry or its creative processes to have them, even though the essay is filled with the very things Olson claims to prevent. Unfortunately, Olson’s third advantage excludes the very substance of the entire poetic process. Without them, you cannot have poetic process as I understand the nature of creativity for Art.
Intuition plays a central role in poetic process; initial and later phases. If I did not distinguish between these elements, I would not convey this as I truly feel. After reading James Wright and Theodore Roethke, my ideas and feelings haven’t really changed that much. Reading Jung on literature only confirms my feelings and thoughts about poetic process. Perhaps the first essay in the field of literary theory on this issue that I had ever read was Northrop Frye’s “Toward Defining an Age of Sensibility” from Fables of Identity. The first essay I ever studied was Donald Hall’s “Goatfoot, Milktongue, Twinbird: The Psychic Origins of Poetic Form.”
Since then, I have always felt this gnawing sensibility, this inner feeling that a little more can be said about poetic process without any further conjecture or confusion on the matter. Jung, especially in the two essays; “Psychology and Literature” and “On the relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry” has provided me a context for discussion, of issues I feel relevant to my thoughts about my own poetic process. In “Psychology and Literature” Jung says the “essence of the work of art is not to be found in the personal idiosyncrasies… but in its rising above the personal and speaking from the mind and heart of mankind” (The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature 101).
My focus primarily concerns the psychic origins of poetic activity that all people share and which originates as the psychic process which forms the attention of the poet’s consciousness throughout the phases of poetic process. This characterizes the means of creating poetry. There exist a certain set of elements involved in the process and these elements are not entirely separate nor are they easily isolated for discussion.
A poet begins with the perception of objects in nature, or otherwise thoughts. The intuitive mode, as it has been called in the past, begins with this perception or a remembrance of that perception and attempts to stimulate ideas which will eventually form the work of art that is the poem. Perception involves both the origin and the stimulus itself and the objects within perception. Which-ever happens to be the case, the poet feels drawn toward a certain expression and not another. The consciousness which bears this object or perception and which acquires this sudden attention is said to be inspired or placing attention on a given thought or group of ideas. In this early stage of poetic process, only vague feelings can be communicated about the nature of its origin. Often, this process begins in several different ways and may also involve methods that will be utilized by the psyche in question at various stages of progression or not at all.
Nature characteristically holds a strong influence in the poetry of certain writers. Whether you call this trait Nature Poetry or whether you study this aspect of the influence of the natural environment in various types of poets, it is obvious after comparison that this influence is stronger in some and lesser in others. Still, despite this common feature, each individual psyche will not find the same materials of interest nor will they all show the same level or degree of interest. Ironically, speaking as a poet who finds this material meaningful, I cannot say the means of creating remains the same each time even for an individual. Often, inspiration is a natural function, so-to-speak. I don’t force writing.
Inspiration means finding something of interest and using the substance as material for the work of art, or simply allowing the process to begin on its own. Consciousness has a way of intuitively perceiving this in the natural environment, even though this often functions unconsciously. This is what the poet feels drawn to, even though they have been conditioned and shaped through education, their aesthetic choices remain partly influenced by this somewhat indiscernible, pre-cognitive function. I can never fully express what draws me to use certain materials and not others in this early stage of poetic process. I feel through the process intuitively, though sometimes I filter out what is not desired. Sometimes only the intuitive material is the only thing written and no filtering takes place. Eventually, the form of the work will take shape. Gestalt exists as that which remains inherently worked toward, either in the unified work or in revision.
How does this process begin? Typically, the poetic process begins and takes one of two paths toward expression. Seager’s chapter titled, “Working Methods,” from The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke and Jung’s “Psychology and Poetry,” seem accurate on this aspect. Consciousness usually takes a deliberate course or one more indirect in nature. In the first mode, the work exists as a conscious product of the psyche, deliberate and intentional, arbitrarily created from the beginning in the apparent form or type of work the material takes. In the second mode, the work exists as the product of the unconscious or the intuitive aspect of the psyche; a work more felt through than controlled, more freely written and guided than consciously created. The censoring aspect makes changes or corrections to the material selectively in subsequent work sessions. Any further revision is a matter of individual process.
In his essay, Jung outlines two basic types of literary expression: psychological and visionary. These two categories mirror his entire psychological concept of life; his theory of psychological types, of the structure and general nature of the unconscious. This basic division extends therefore, from literature to include other aspects of human experience. In terms of describing poetic process, I think this remains a helpful model of explaining what takes place in the creative process for poetry. As I described earlier, there is a deliberate process, more arbitrary, fully mapped and intentional which Jung calls, psychological, more rational and logical in terms of its basic comprehension. Also, there exists the more intuitive method of indirect process, an inward way, which produces visionary works of art. One must distinguish here between process and product.
Poetic process includes all phases of development from the initial feeling that prompts the poem, including perception and experience, throughout all phases of drafting to the final product. Some poets do not utilize revision and so their process can be thought of as mostly deliberate, psychological, or what Seager calls “conventional.” My own method, what I call intuitive, would be categorized as visionary, yet the work would be called conventional. Many contemporary poets of the past seventy years have been trained using this model for the composition of poetry. Using the intuitive method, there often remains a normal oscillation in process between each type or mode. The final work usually illustrates dominant traits of one or the other. Only in rare instances of Language Poetry would you see traits of each existing together.
Also of special relevance, there exists the Romantic aesthetic concerning inspiration which I believe central to poetic process. Since I do not consider myself a purely detached, Postmodern writer, I still have given these types of experience spiritual significance because they still retain their mystery to me. Since poetry concerns expression of our concepts and feelings or thoughts about life and experience, this expression is given priority and importance in addition to existing as a work of art. Many readers of poetry still tend to carry the preconceived notion of the emotional aspect of what defines a poem because poetry has historically existed as a more intimate, personal medium. This is partly due to the early influence of scriptural readings of the Christian Bible in the American home and the fact that most colleges and universities began as parochial institutions. After years of secular influence, one should not be surprised to find this somewhat neutral attitude toward the issue.
I feel that poetic activity is not spiritual in the churchly sense — it is however, ultimately spiritual in the human sense. There is a fine line here, though one which I should make for the sake of clarity in discussion of poetic process and one’s true motives to create. Jung says, “Art is a kind of innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument. The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purposes through him. As a human being he may have moods and a will and personal aims, but as an artist he is “man,” in a higher sense — he is “collective man,” a vehicle and moulder of the unconscious psychic life of mankind” (Jung 101). As human-beings we know of our beginnings and are in a better position to discuss our motives even if we cannot fully articulate the feelings. Language permits an attempt at understanding.