What’s Inspiration, Anyway?


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 Today I was looking through the Review’s Summer 1988 issue, which features a long symposium on the vagaries of inspiration. Drawing from the magazine’s Writers at Work interviews, George Plimpton quotes dozens of writers, all of them trying to put their finger on that elusive matter of impulse—why does anybody write anything, ever? And why keep going? John Ashbery, Saul Bellow, John Berryman, John Cheever, Joan Didion, William Faulkner, Marianne Moore, Katherine Anne Porter, and May Sarton are among those who weigh in. (And not a one of them relies on that terrifying phrase: getting your creative juices flowing. This is a juice-free space.) I was especially fond of Stanley Kunitz’s thinking, which sees language as a pesky impediment to the truly Platonic poem that all of us carry around in our heads:

The poem in the head is always perfect. Resistance starts when you try to convert it into language. Language itself is a kind of resistance to the pure flow of self. The solution is to become one’s language. You cannot write a poem until you hit upon its rhythm. That rhythm not only belongs to the subject matter, it belongs to your interior world, and the moment they hook up there’s a quantum leap of energy. Yow can ride on that rhythm, it will carry you somewhere strange. The next morning you look at the page and wonder how it all happened. You have to triumph over all your diurnal glibness and cheapness and defensiveness.

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