Sunday, 26 January 2014


Saturday afternoon.  A short blustery walk round Maryport Harbour, the wind whipping white horses on the incoming tide.  Across the Solway, Criffel looming dark grey and then disappearing in another scud of rain.  As I walk over the marina’s pedestrian drawbridge, cables rattle insistently on yacht masts. 

Wind – how often it has been used as a synonym for inspiration.   The Romantics hung their Aeolian harps outside and listened to nature’s music, literally inspired/blown upon by the wind.

A short piece by Tara Bergin (“Everything and Nothing”) in the recent PN Review got me thinking about inspiration, a word that has become rather suspect – a word that needs reining in by structure and form.  The root of the word inspiration (the Latin spirare) has links to breath, air, wind, spirit.  Inspiration is a two-fold process which involves both the maker of a work of art and the response to it by the person looking at, listening to, reading, even touching the art form which has been created.

“If I knew where poems come from I would go there”, said Michael Longley, quoting Rilke in the recent Radio 3 Essay series, “Letters to a Young Poet”.  For the writer inspiration can be an inconvenient thing.  Les Murray wrote:

“Poetry is apt to rise in you
  just when you’re on the brink
  of doing something important,

  trivially important, like flying
  across the world tomorrow.”

These lines are from a poem called “The Long Wet Season” – unintentionally appropriate for the current British weather.

The writer may have a desperate impulse to write, may feel inspired, but that does not mean that the resultant writing is any good.  “An ill-made thing leaks energy” said Stanley Kunitz.  The writer has to find a way to conserve the energy of inspiration – otherwise it can run away like water poured into a sieve.  Perhaps that is why the sonnet form has thrived for so long – its tight yet infinitely variable form is a way of conserving energy, particularly the energy of extreme emotion.

We tend to think of inspiration from the writer’s point of view.  But what of the response of reader or audience?  when someone says “That is inspired”?  Inspired writing doesn’t mean feel-good writing.  King Lear and The Waste Land are inspired but inspiration took Shakespeare and Eliot into very dark places.  We follow them into those dark places – and, at times, have to hold our breath. 

A few years ago I was teaching at a summer school when Stephania, an Italian student, said to me “You can breathe in that poem”.  She was explaining her response to William Blake’s “The Lamb” in Songs of Innocence and Experience.  Breath(e) again.  Tara Bergin put it like this:

“Question: ‘How can one thing, described in terms of another, make the thing described more truthful, and more real?’
Answer: ‘Because it makes me draw in my breath.  That’s why’”. 

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