Joyce Carol Oates
I think that I should begin by evoking René Magritte’s famous painting of 1929, The Treachery of Images, with its simple, literal depiction of a pipe and the provocative caption beneath—Ceci n’est pas une pipe. “This is not a pipe.” (How strangely people seem to have reacted to this self-evident statement! Though no one in actual life would confuse a pipe with the drawing of a pipe.)
This is not a traditional lecture so much as the quest for a lecture in the singular—a quest constructed around a sequence of questions: Why do we write? What is the motive for metaphor? “Where do you get your ideas?” Do we choose our subjects, or do our subjects choose us? Do we choose our “voices”? Is inspiration a singular phenomenon, or does it take taxonomical forms? Indeed, is the uninspired life worth living?
Why did I write? What sin to me unknown
Dipt me in Ink, my Parents’, or my own?
Alexander Pope’s great “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot” (1735) asks this question both playfully and seriously. Why did the child Pope take to verse at so young an age, telling us, as many a poet might tell us, with the kind of modesty that enormous self-confidence can generate, “I lisp’d in Numbers, for the Numbers came,” by which the poet means an intuitive, instinctive, “inborn” sense of scansion and rhyme for which some individuals have the equivalent of “perfect pitch” in music: you are born with it, or you are not.
For sheer virtuosity in verse, Pope is one of the great masters of the language; his brilliantly orchestrated couplets lend themselves ideally to the expression of “wit” (usually caustic, in the service of the poet’s satiric mission). The predilection to “lisp in numbers” suggests a kind of entrapment, though Pope doesn’t suggest this; the perfectly executed couplet with its locked-together rhymes is a tic-like mannerism not unlike punning, to which some individuals succumb involuntarily (“pathological punning” is a symptom of frontal lobe syndrome, a neurological deficit caused by injury or illness) even as others react with revulsion and alarm.
Pope’s predilection for “lisping in numbers” seems to us closely bound up with his era, and his talent a talent of the era, which revered the tight-knit grimace of satire and the very sort of expository and didactic poetry from which, half a century later, Wordsworth and Coleridge would seek to free the poet. Pope never suggests, however, that the content of poetry is in any way inherited, like the genetic propensity for scansion and rhyme; he would not have concurred (who, among the poets, and among most of us, would so concur?) with Plato’s churlish view of poetry as inspired not from within the individual poet’s imagination but from an essentially supranatural, daimonic source.
To Plato, poetry had to be under the authority of the state, in the service of the (mythical, generic) Good; that it might be “imitative” of any specific object was to its discredit. “No ideas but in things,” the rallying cry of William Carlos Williams in the twentieth century, would have been anathema to the essentialist Plato, like emotion itself, or worse yet, “passion.” Thus, all “imitative” poetry, especially the “tragic poetry” of Homer, should be banished from the Republic, as it is “deceptive,” “magical,” and “insincere.” With the plodding quasi logic of a right-wing politician, Plato’s Socrates dares to say, in the Ion:
In fact, all the good poets who make epic poems [like Homer] use no art at all, but they are inspired and possessed when they utter all these beautiful poems, and so are the good lyric poets; these are not in their right mind [italics mine] when they make their beautiful songs…. As soon as they mount on their harmony and rhythm, they become frantic and possessed…. For the poet is an airy thing, a winged and a holy thing; he cannot make poetry until he becomes inspired and goes out of his senses and no mind is left in him…. Not by art, then, they make their poetry…but by divine dispensation; therefore, the only poetry that each one can make is what the Muse has pushed him to make…. These beautiful poems are not human, not made by man, but divine and made by God: and the poets are nothing but the gods’ interpreters….
The poets whom Plato disdained (and feared) were analogous to our rock stars, before large and enthusiastic audiences; we can assume that it wasn’t the fact that these poets were popular, as Homer was popular, to which Plato objected, but the fact that his particular heavily theologized philosophy didn’t form the content of their utterances. The poet’s right mind should be under the authority of the state—indeed each citizen’s right mind should be a part of the hive mind of the Republic. That the freethinking, rebellious, and unpredictable poet-type must be banished from the claustrophobic Republic is self-evident. (In one of the great ironies of history, it was to be Plato’s Socrates who was banished from the state.)
The worksheets of poets as diverse as Dylan Thomas, William Butler Yeats, Elizabeth Bishop, and Philip Larkin suggest how deliberate is the poet’s art, and how far from being inspired by a (mere) daimon; though it is often the poet’s wish to appear spontaneous, unstudied—see Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse”:
We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, “A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.”
That beautiful mild woman for whose sake
There’s many a one shall find out all heartache
On finding that her voice is sweet and low
Replied, “To be born woman is to know—
Although they do not talk of it at school—
That we must labour to be beautiful.”
I said, “It’s certain there is no fine thing
Since Adam’s fall but needs much labouring….”
Very different from the Beats’ notorious admonition: “First thought, best thought.”
To appear spontaneous and unresolved, even as one is highly calculated and conscious—this is the ideal. As Virginia Woolf remarked in her diary in 1925, in an aside that seems almost to prefigure her suicide in 1941 at the age of fifty-nine:
I do not any longer feel inclined to doff the cap to death. I like to go out of the room talking, with an unfinished casual sentence on my lips…. No leavetakings, no submission—but someone stepping out into the darkness.
“Inspiration” is an elusive term. We all want to be “inspired” if the consequence is something original and worthwhile; we would even consent to be “haunted”—“obsessed”—if the consequence were significant. For all writers dread what Emily Dickinson calls “Zero at the Bone”—the dead zone from which inspiration has fled.
What does it mean to be captivated by an image, a phrase, a mood, an emotion?