The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge woke up after an opium-laced dream and sat down to write “Kubla Khan.” He wrote it down line-for-line until he was interrupted by a visitor. Then he forgot the rest. “Kubla Khan” was never finished. It is considered one of Coleridge’s greatest.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
Where does poetic inspiration come from, and how is it won or lost? The tale shifts according to each poet, each poem, and I dare to think no one has ever really known. No more than any musician has ever known, or any painter. It is never quite the same in each successive case.
They claim, sometimes, to understand how they were inspired – but the story about the inspiration is itself a kind of art, and in this way is a half-step removed from the inspiration itself. Artists are always in the middle of art. They do not know how to simply report events, and the event of their originating thoughts are double-obscured: from us, and from them.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
So artists and their muses are a wall of mystery, unable to be reached or determined. They call it genius, but that is a name for something we do not grasp.
Since artists can offer no assistance, since they themselves cannot see, I try to understand independently. To look into, and past, the artist’s self-description. But I do not know quite what to make of any of it, either the creative mind or the art. Do I need to know the mind at all to know the art?
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail
These creative minds, driven into action by drugs and tragedy and hope and derision. Spurred onward by a thousand various motives, as many good as bad. This thoroughly human talent, which with sugary optimism we sometimes like to relate to the divine. It is not so easy as that, though. Not so easy.
Francisco de Goya lost his mind as he aged, and he painted some of his most brilliant works along the walls of the darkened house he occupied. Is madness, then, divine? It can hardly make sense to say so.
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread
I try, then, to think of art as it works in the limits of my own mind. A chimera of a mind: filled with art, yet bent wholly toward logic. (These do not need to be opposed, do they?) In any case, it is no help. I try to be aware of my inspiration, but the contours of each experience are so different as to come from a different person entirely.
The poem I wrote, “The Vision of St. Francis,” began with a memory. I remembered a cold and dark morning, hazy with pain, and I remembered praying. In the dark. The memory seemed to be an image for something, though I couldn’t say what. Then I heard a song, and I thought of St. Francis, and I saw the fiery seraph-wings spread out across the sky. In the dark, the dark and the bright. So I set myself to describing him and the seraph-vision, well aware that I blended these with St. John of the Cross.
Or once I looked across the room at my dying grandmother, and felt in that bare moment that I would never see her alive again. A poem came to mind, written invisibly as I observed her huddled in a chair – thin and weary. A painful goodbye, written in my mind. I wished desperately to cease thinking of it, but could not seem to stop. I wrote it down later. She died within a few days.
Recently, I caught sight of a friend sitting among other friends. He glanced at me, face obscured by a baseball cap, and I perceived in the expression something to be grasped. Some poem, some secret moment to be remembered and alloyed with another. But I lost it, or never figured it out. He turned away. Still I remember something of the look, and store it away among a long list of disintegrated moments.
I have used such moments, resurrected for different purposes, though I never can save them all. In “Vertigo,” I gathered dozens such as these together. I spoke carefully of the loneliness I saw even among my most beloved friends, even within loving marriages. No one is ever quite rid of loneliness. The hundred internal divisions. So I remembered these, the ones I knew in myself and the ones I saw, and wrote them down. And related each of them to the Eucharist.
Or, finally, there is my proudest moment – a poem I have never posted, because it is too important to me. I wrote it for two friends, and do not consider it mine at all. Yet it is my proudest moment, because in it I managed to drop everything about myself and take up what I remembered about them. However I could, however I did – I did it. With almost disturbing accuracy, I put myself aside and recalled them. On a dare, of all things.
So there is no single moment, either in the history of artists or in a half-artist such as myself, that seems to get at how inspiration works. It is never quite the same, and it does not quite appear under the total control of the artist. Striving after inspiration is, I begin to think, the false trail that most modern art has chosen to lose itself along. The artist does not know himself, and cannot know.