August 31, 2011
What makes a poem original? In my previous column, I referred to originality as something more than mere novelty – “perhaps some combination of exactness, particularity, intelligence and beauty”, “something ineffable” – which admittedly dodged around the tricky business of actually defining it. These approximations are still my best working description of originality, but the fact that I can’t pin it down doesn’t prevent me from indulging in that fine artistic tradition of speculating about where it comes from.
Speaking as a writer, the poems that feel the most satisfyingly original, the most unmistakeably themselves, are the ones that are at least partly “given” – or, as I’ve described it elsewhere, poems whose writing provokes “the delicious sense that you’re not making something new so much as uncovering something that has always existed, word by tantalizing word.” Many poets have spoken of the subjectively remarkable, yet apparently commonplace, experience of having a poem seem to write itself; here, for example, is Michael Longley in a recent interview:
“[A poem is] a rare event […] It has a feeling of inevitability, as though the poem has always existed, and was just waiting to be discovered.”
A poem doesn’t write itself, of course, even if it sometimes feels that way – so where is this spine-tingling sense of otherness coming from? The ancient world had its Muses, and religious people might still incline towards the notion of divine inspiration, but what’s a secular modern writer to conclude?
When I puzzle on the deep roots of originality, the thing that immediately comes to mind is sleep – something of a pet subject at the best of times, I admit! – and more particularly, the dreamlife that accompanies sleep.
Consulting the scientific literature, one could be forgiven for concluding that sleep is as inscrutable as originality: its exact purpose in human and non-human biology is far from clearly understood. (For example, in people, it may have some role in filtering the day’s experiences in order to lay down useful memories, and animal studies have suggested that it may replenish neural processes – but there are plenty of competing theories). Scientific studies tend to emphasise short-term, biology-driven benefits of sleep, but the writer in me can’t help but suspect that there’s some deeper, longer-term organisation or intelligence at work in dreaming.
Sometimes my dreams seem shamelessly symbolic – the careening car-with-very-spongy-brakes that I’m desperately trying to slow down, or the collection of baggage that I’m going to have to leave behind if I’m not to miss my imminently-departing flight. At other times my dreams are intensely filmic, telling convoluted but essentially linear adventure stories. Most interestingly, there’s a recurring dream which I’ve had for many years, but whose denouement continues to change subtly over time as I myself change, grow older, sort a few things out – a metaphorical mirror, almost.
The cumulative experience of all this dreamlife creates the sense of some coherent other, deep in my own mind, which has a penchant for symbolism, a vivid narrative imagination and (sometimes) a thing or two it wants to tell me. It’s subjectively tempting – and yes, of course, rationally unjustifiable – to infer that it’s the same coherent other that feeds me both these ever-surprising dreams and these occasional “given” poems, constructions that are nominally offshoots of my own mind, and yet somehow feel like they’re from somewhere else.
What are the implications if the dream-self and the deeper writing-self are indeed two faces of the one entity, the true locus of our originality? I find it encouraging – not least because I’ve never suffered from Dreamer’s Block! Dreamlife is abundant, so perhaps the rarity of Longley’s “rare event” is not because that deep creative voice doesn’t have things to say, but because we get too caught up in the noise of our busy conscious minds to hear it. When we reach an artistic impasse, and all our work seems stale and unoriginal, perhaps it really is a sensible idea to “sleep on it”?
Kona Macphee is a UK-born, Australian-bred poet now living and working in Scotland. This column is a monthly feature. Kona also facilitates the Poetry Society Poetry Surgeries – keep an eye on our events page for further information on the next surgeries. You can also hear Kona on the SPL podcast ‘Witching Hour’and follow her on Twitter.