Issue 3, Autumn 1953
Historically, poets have generally adopted one of two main “poses,” or manners of considering their own metier. One has been the prophet, or vates, the divine madman who scrawls out his gifts from the gods in a state of inspiration and frenzy. The vates corresponds to the popular conception of the poet as long-haired eccentric. Contemporary critical opinion, on the other hand, often seems to disbelieve in the vates, and to expect all poets to conform to the other traditional category, that of the craftsman, the careful “maker.”
The categories become mixed in individual poets. Blake posed as a prophet, and said that poems were dictated to him by voices, but some manuscripts which have survived show extensive and painstaking revision; and even between printed editions of his work, Blake occasionally revised. The craftsman Coleridge wrote out Kubla Kahn in a state of near-dream. Yet, despite these and other exceptions, two general lines can be distinguished; and the attitude toward composition has some relation to the kind, if not the quality of the poems written.
Pasternak has said that the pose comes before the poetry. Whatever order of events is considered most accurate, what is most significant is not the order of the facts but the relationship itself. It is the assumption of the role which provides the speaker with the manner of speech. As in life we make a series of formal choices in conversation, which can be compared to a sculptor blocking out the main shape of his statue so in art our formal choices are much more line, and demand or engender a corresponding high formality. There is no insincerity involved—a useless term in literary criticism—but an assumption of personality which is no less real because it is assumed.
Richard Eberhart and Richard Wilbur make a useful contrast in their habits of composition. They are both good poets, and both thoroughly inside the movement of modern poetry—yet their methods are so distinctly opposed as to provide a text by contrast. Eberhart is the contemporary vales. To him, it seems that poetry is spontaneous, and the expression of a divine madness. Critical fashion, which once would not tolerate Trollope because he wrote according to schedule, today distrusts the existence of the inspired work. Poe’s description of his method in writing “The Raven”—an orderly process in which he chose length, form, and even characteristic sounds before subject matter—shocked his contemporaries, but does not appear fantastic today. Yet it is certain that Eberhart’s description of his own poetic activity is thoroughly honest. We must learn to accept the fact of inspiration. Eberhart has written, “In the rigors of composition it seems to me that the poet’s mind is a filament, informed with the irrational vitality of energy as it was discovered in our time in quantum mechanics. The quanta may shoot off any way. (You breathe in maybe God)...This leads on not to automatic writing, but to some mysterious power latent within him which illuminates his being so that his perceptions are more than ordinarily available for use, and that in such moments he has the ability to establish feelings, ideas and perceptions which are communicable in potential degree and with some pleasure.”
Since it is not the idea of a poem which presents itself to Eberhart, but a state of mind in which he can write poetry, his writing is sporadic and intense. He cannot write at will. Sometimes months elapse between two sessions of writing, but when the “manic state”—as he has called it—occurs, Eberhart may write as many as ten poems right after each other, very nearly as quickly as he can put pen to paper. It is, he says, “a method of exhausting the psyche, a trance-like state, dominated by sensibility.” Therefore in Eberhart’s work there is little revision; words are changed only occasionally, and never more than one whole line in a poem.
The ten poems written at a sitting are grossly uneven in quality—another of the mysteries. For most of his writing life, Eberhart has published only twenty percent of the poems he has written. His desk is stuffed with unpublished poems. More recently, he has published half of his poems, but he does not know whether to attribute this to an increasing sureness of technique, aided by revision, or to literary prominence. He doubts the value of poems which editors reject, but follows the advice Empson gave him years ago, to publish everything he could, because it is impossible to know what a future age may find in a poem the present age dislikes.
Richard Wilbur, on the other hand, publishes every poem he finishes, and finishes far fewer than Eberhart. The actual writing of a poem may take four hours and it may take two years, but it tends to be accomplished in an intense burst of effort in one or two days. Before the writing begins, Wilbur often carries the idea of the poem in his head for some time; he says he feels a certain warm self-indulgence at such times: he has a poem, but he isn’t going to share it with anybody. He may very well make notes for it, groups of words which suggest to him the movement the poem will follow, and which may or may not appear in the poem. The notes are not a thorough prose draft of the poem (Yeats, Ben Johnson, Horace and Virgil have used such drafts) but merely suggestive fragments; Wilbur would note “Helen” rather than “epitome of earthly beauty.” In the notes for his poem, “The Beacon,” Wilbur used a diagram to work out the conceit which is the movement of the poem. The luxurious cherishing of the poem, and the note-taking stage, last varying lengths of time. Then comes the writing.
Wilbur cannot describe the experience of writing in terms which resemble Eberhart’s. It is a condition of intense self-absorption, rather than a “manic state.” It is an effort, of the intensest variety, to force the poem into a whole. Very often Wilbur does not know, when he begins a poem, where it will end. He has one image, or set of images, which appeals to him; the concentration is an effort to find the meaning behind the image, and the intensity must produce a result honest in the terms of the poem in itself, or the poem will be bad. One of the best poems in Wilbur’s most recent book, Ceremony, is an example: when he began “A World Without Objects is a Sensible Emptiness,” the “tall camels of the spirit” in the first line were simply an image of asceticism. The poem halted, midway in the third stanza, for several months, until Wilbur realized the culmination of the poem in imagery of Bethlehem. The finished poem convinces us of its perfect integrity. “The Pardon,” also from Ceremony, had its origin in a dream; writing the poem was the process of understanding the dream.