Thursday, August 9, 2012

Anxiety of Inspiration

     What if inspiration does not come in the form of some muse-figure, or bright angel whispering in a poet’s ear late at night, but is more simply a trigger response alleviating the anxieties a poet feels? I read an interesting interview with  A.R. Ammons first conducted in The Paris Review but now found in Set in Motion: Essays, Interviews, & Dialogues, in which the interviewer David Lehman asks the poet Ammons whether inspiration originates in nature, external reality, or in the self?

     Ammons responds thoughtfully with this gem of a statement about anxiety and inspiration:

"I think it comes from anxiety. That is to say, either the mind or the body is already rather highly charged and in need of some kind of expression, some way to crystallize and relieve the pressure. And it seems to me that if you’re in that condition and an idea, an insight, an association occurs to you, then that energy is released through the expression of that insight or idea, and after the poem is written, you feel a certain resolution or calmness. Well, I won’t say a “momentary stay against confusion” (Robert Frost’s phrase) but that’s what I mean. I think it comes from that. You know, Bloom says somewhere that poetry is anxiety." (89) 

     What Ammons identifies as anxiety in this passage speaks directly to an inner malady, to feelings of detachment which overwhelm many who write, especially poets who spend too much time staring down their noses at popular culture. What we are told to worship, or that has value, or is of central importance to modern life does not seem authentic to our own understanding of the "real" world. This discrepancy between representation and experience is what a poet feels most acutely.

     However, when one throws out a word like anxiety, all kinds of associations arise. To be clear, I’m not implying a poem is a kind of panic room, but more that it is a doorway where once entered into, the uncertainties of modern living dissipate, and incongruities of feeling find reconciliation.

      Is this a poetry of therapy? Of survival? I don’t think so. It is a release of energy, as Ammons has characterized it. That energy finds its home at the center of a good poem. 

     Theodore Roethke once remarked, “Energy is the soul of poetry” so perhaps this is what he was talking about. Inspiration does not come from outside of us. It is an indwelling necessity. We have to make poems happen, or they will not get written. I’m reminded of a favorite poem Mine Own Phil Levine by the American poet Dorianne Laux that pays homage to her poetry teacher Philip Levine and contains the following stanza:

His Muse, if he had one, was a window
Filled with a brick wall, the left hand corner
Of his mind, a hand lined with grease
And sweat: literal things

     What I like about this stanza is how it places the responsibility for a poet’s vision squarely on the poet. No one can see things or write poems for you. No matter how difficult it can be juggling work and personal commitments, no matter how under-appreciated life sometimes makes you feel, it is up to you to make the poems happen.

     Looking at my own writing history, I write poems because I need to and for no other reason. This has not changed since I first started scribbling out lines in high school. Forget a poetry career. It does not exist. This is not why poets write poems anyways. As Ammons says in the same interview, the reasons for writing poetry is because it is unavoidable:

     "I couldn’t avoid being a poet. I was really having a pretty rough time of things, and I had a lot of energy, and poems were practically the only recourse I had to alleviate that energy and that anxiety. I take no credit for all the poems I’ve written. They were a way of releasing anxiety." (92) 

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