Breathe-in experience,
Breathe-out poetry
Muriel Rukeyser

We have now come to the metaphysical energy that I shall from hereon in call POESIS, which is the true source of poetic inspiration? The world exists in an eternal state of flux, constantly generating this electrical charge that drives artistic inspiration. Our poets are the beacons which attract this poesis, which builds up until it is released & converted by certain laser beams which sear their serried thoughts onto the page. ‘The poet’s mind,’ said TS Elliot of the same process, ‘is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.’ Poesis is the force which acts both like a magnet to those ‘numberless feelings, phrases, images’ & their transporter into the poet’s psyche. In the natural spheres, poesis blankets poetic sites & scenes, such as bluebell woods & open plains in the early morning mist. We have on record a visionary account of seeing poesis, made by the 25-year old Protestant mystic, Jacob Boehme, in 1600.

Sitting one day in his room his eyes fell upon a burnished pewter dish, which reflected the sunshine with such marvellous splendor that he fell into an inward ecstasy, and it seemed to him as if he could now look into the principles and deepest foundations of things. He believed that it was only a fancy, and in order to banish it from his mind he went out upon the green. But here he remarked that he gazed into the very heart of things, the very herbs and grass, and that actual nature harmonized with what he had inwardly seen.

Poesis is the very same force which Lao-Tzu defined as the Tao, which flows, ‘through all things, inside & outside, & returns to the origin of all things.’ In the human spheres, poesis can be gained from society, the interaction of people such as deep friendships & intimacies, company & conversation. Within the poet himself, poesis bubbles forth from the ferment of his emotions; Passion, Grief, Lust, Dejection, Love, Anger & Joy can all move a poet. Where Rimbaud says ‘the poet makes himself a seer by a long, prodigious & rational disordering of all the senses – every form of love, or madness he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him & keeps only their quintessences,’ this quintessence is the poesis which he retains for future use. The constant barrage of stimulation that comes with travel is one of the greatest sources of poesis, as is a hearty diet of culture. Immersion in the arts leaves a lingering hint of poesis in the poet’s soul-pool. It is important for a poet to engage in culture; whenever Lord Byron would come to a new residence his first transaction would be the purchase of a box at the Opera House, for example. One should also study the richest sources of poesis; the old poems themselves, which ever contain a portion of the original poesis channeled by the poet of origin. The state of the poet’s inner self also has an important contribution; Stability, Confidence & Ambition can all stimulate their art. One of the most important, & perhaps the most essential sources of poesis stems from solitude. These moments of tranquil communion tap the poesis latent in a poet’s psychic store-rooms as they converse with both their soul & the art, whereby through deep & thoughtful musing they gain fresh insight & envision new projects.

There is a drawback. With all this poesis swimming about the psyche the poets have always been treated as ‘mad’ & this may be true – but it is a finer sort of madness, but if poesis is allowed to build up too much, & is not channeled out properly, the clogging may cause madness & perversions in the artist’s work. Many poets have had periods of madness, from asylum-bounden John Clare to the breakdowns of Sylvia Plaid. The American poet Jones Very, started writing a series of exceptionally & beautiful & mystical sonnets when he was locked up ‘safe’ in an asylum for a month. Likewise, the great work of the twentieth century, TS Elliot’s Wasteland, was composed in a sanitarium in Lausanne.

A poesis-pregnant poet often feels ready to write, but does not know what about. They will think of several topics, looking around them frantically until, like a child finally fitting a square peg into a square hole, something inspirational comes along, the poet’s psyche connects with a tangible subject & the poem may flow. It all begins with the poet’s drifting mind, as soft as blossom in Springtime, until from some divine perch the Pegasus of Poetry swoops down. Picture if you will a lightning flash, a grand epiphany that sparks off the creative process. This starting point, the inspiration-trigger known as the CATALYST, forms a bridge that links the outside world to the poet’s deep psyche in which pools of built-up poesis are stored. The poet is taken beyond the mortal coil… it is a visionary moment where an image, a word, a line, or even an entire poem is laid before the eyes. ‘We who are priests of Apollo,’ said John Dryden, ‘have not the inspiration when we please, but must wait til the god comes rushing on us, & invades us with a fury which we are not able to resist, which gives us double strength while his fire continues, & leaves us languishing & spent at his departure.’ The catalyst can be anything; the daffodils that lined Ullswater as Wordsworth walked by them are a prime example. The Nightingale Ode of John Keats contain a number of feelings which have nothing to do with the bird; it is as if her sweet warblings suddenly sparked of an onrush of sentiment that had been building up within him. An individual catalyst may provoke differing responses… for one poet a mound of earth could be perceived as a Faerie Barrow, which inspires a pastoral sonnet, while for another poet may see a Saxon burial ground & compose an elegy to fallen warriors. One of my favorite examples of the catalyst in action is the French poet, D’Aubigne, who conceived his great epic poem Les Tragiques whilst lying wounded by the road after an attempt on his life. Another instance can be identified in the life of Charlotte Bronte, who wrote little poetry, but when her sisters died in swift succession, these tragic events formed a catalyst for to write some beautiful poetry.

Once the poesis is beginning to flow, we enter the art’s kitchen, where the raw ingredients may be cooked up into something recognizably poetic. This brings us to the most mystical section of an art – the act known as composition. The vehicle for this process is the mind, or PSYCHE, made up of the creative imagination & its memory banks. To this is added REASON, which forms the balance & the bind between the two. When the Psyche is operating at a compositive level, it may be described as performing an act of CREATION, where in the poem’s world, the poet is omnipotent. Poets find the deepest pleasures during composition, for when the mind knits all together in this way, the poet has surely made a connection with the infinitismal.

Composition is an intuitive sensation, driven by the poet’s suspicions as to what is good; a sense of the chase where the poem’s ‘vision’ is a stag to be hunted down. The first poetical pre-requisite is an open mind, free from clutter & focus’d on the matter at hand. The French word for this openness was vertueux, & without this state of mind no poesis can be drawn into the psyche, nor chanelled outward onto the page. ‘If you think of consciousness as a lake,’ suggests Colin Wilson, ‘it becomes plain that if the lake freezes – or becomes thick & muddy – a stone thrown into it will have far less effect than when the water is clear. When you are tired, events hardly cause a ripple in your consciousness. You hear a piece of music that normally moves you, but nothing happens. The stone has plopped into an almost solid jelly, & it merely vibrates slightly. On the other hand, if I am wide awake & full of vitality, the same piece of music may cause something like a tidal wave in my lake, an overwhelming emotional experience.’ In a letter to the composer Tchaikovsky Mily Balakirev, ably described the magical way creation begins when the artist is verteux;

Inflame yourself with a plan. Then arm yourself with galoshes & a stick, set off for a walk along the boulevards, starting at the Nikitsky, inspire yourself with your plan – & I’m convinced that before you reach the Sretensky boulevard you’ll already have some theme or at least an episode

Entering the poetic trance can be compared to an eastern mantra, & it is while under this spell, akin to the reverie that shamans enter when drawing on their incantations, that the poets will produce the mystical manna which invigorates their words. The Islamic word baraka means ‘sudden divine rapture’ & represents the religious exstasi that many poets feel when entering the trance. The most genuine poetry has been written spontaneously & immediately in a state of baraka, with some poems often arriving fully blown in the poet’s mind, testament to the gigantic powers a poet can command when under the trance. This state of self-hypnosis, this nascent existence in the twilight of imagination, perches just on the vestibule of consciousness.

When poets enter the baraka they seem to be sleepwalking in a heighten’d sense of relaxed receptivity. As a powerful atmosphere envelops the spirit, a period of vivid & violent activity engages the mind. Here, a series of formless feelings & images – given the name MIMESIS by the ancyent Greeks – issue forth into the Psyche, ready to be worked into poetry by the poet. ‘Mimesis is innate in human beings from childhood,’ wrote Aristotle, ‘indeed we differ from other animals in being most given to mimesis & in making our first steps in learning through it – & pleasure in instances of mimesis is equally general. This we can see from the facts: we enjoy looking at the most exact portrayals of things we do not like to see in real life, the lowest animals, for instance, or corpses.’ It is upon such raw mimesi that the poets stamp their signature, coating them in raw poesis & sculpting wonderful words & phrases of great intensity & clarity. ‘The poet,’ mused Rimbaud, ‘must see to it that his inventions can be smelt, felt, heard,’ & as the word-constructs are flung by the psyche to the forefront of thought, their curious & peculiar syntax transcend the emotional force of even the most consider’d rhetoric. Here we may observe the conversion of raw poesis into vivacious living matter. Sometimes all the poesis will flow out at once, like milk from a broken bottle, but it is very rare that an entire poem contains true poesis, for the poetic faculty is by nature an evanescent mist that arrives unexpectedly & disappears just as quick. A poet of at least some mastery should be able to identify the patches of poesis within any given line of poetry, both by its inherent beauty & also that magical, spark-like trigger-glimmer which shoots through the psyche as one hears or reads the line.

‘Open yourself to the tao,’ taught Lao-Tzu, ’then trust your natural responses & everything falls into place.’ What is created is very much a mosaic, where the moments of pure inspiration are connected by artifice. ‘I have simply clothed my thoughts,’ said Shelley, ‘in what appeared to me the most obvious & appropriate language.’ Sometimes, however, the creation is still-born, something went awry in the womb, so to speak. No matter how much poesis is bubbling in both the poet’s soul-pool & psyche, no matter how inspiring the catalyst, if the poet is not properly ‘in the zone,’ so to speak, then nothing magical may happen. ‘If conditions aren’t right,’ poeticized Ed Northstrum, ‘the poem won’t come out, it will sit inside & stew & emerge a different beast.’

‘It is not the ‘greatness,’ the intensity, of the emotions, the components,’ wrote Eliot, ‘but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes places, that counts.’ It is this quality which makes poetry so special, for it vastly reduces the chances of creating good poetry; so many factors must be in combination to both discover the matter of poetry, & then portray it in its most beautiful way. When composing poetry onself, one should always keep in mind & combine two brief but brilliant statements by famous poets; Coledridge’s, ‘the best words in the best order,’ with Elliot’s ‘use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.’

When a poet is attempting the composition of something longer; just as the farmer learns how to cultivate the land year-in, year-out, the dedicated poet must learn how to harvest & sustain their stores of poesis. They must be able to enter Baraka at will, to maintain & sustain this state of conscious lucid dreaming over great periods of time, in order to complete their longer compositions, when, according to Oscar Wilde, ‘the energy of creation hurries him blindly to his goal.’ Then, when the poem is completed, they will be, as Rimbaud declared, ‘always filled with Number & Harmony, these poems will be made to endure.’

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