Hello poets and readers,
One of the first pieces of writing I remember reading about process is Amy Lowell’s essay ‘The Process of Making Poetry’ (from a book originally published in 1930). Lowell was an early shaker in the Imagist movement, and experimented with lineation and what we now call prose poetry. She also wrote haiku and is anthologised in the recent Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years.
In discussing her own writing process, she initially admits to knowing little about it, celebrating its mystery whilst also stating that it is not daydreaming (in contrast with Freud’s idea that it was very like daydreaming and an extension of childhood play). To Lowell, it is some other very particular psychic state. She reaches to metaphor to describe a poet being like a radio aerial, receiving all sorts of signals and able to turn them into the message that is the poem. It’s interesting how often poets create metaphor to explain tricky stages in the writing process. Melinda Smith did this in her interview with me recently in extending Virginia Woolf’s image of the fishing line playing out and out, saying that only when you’ve landed all the fish do you know what you have, and only then can you contextualise it in terms of other poets and your own works.
The idea of the subconscious is important to Lowell (the term ‘unconscious’ is now more widely used, I’ll stick with her term). She talks about dropping a subject for a poem into the subconscious and waiting for the words to come. Similarly, Melinda Smith speaks of having to get strange things out of the subconscious, and that some time spent in nature helps activate it. For Lowell, poets are people who have “a non-resistant consciousness” (1972, 201), with no subject being alien. And she doesn’t fear the empty page: “It seems as though the simple gazing at a piece of blank paper hypnotized me into an awareness of the subconscious.” (Lowell, 202)
A while ago, I wrote an essay about Lowell’s ideas on the subconscious and how they might relate to assemblage theory. I also apply these ideas to Sylvia Plath’s writing process and the way she re-purposes biography in moving from her notebook account of visiting beekeeper Charlie Pollard to the creation of her poem ‘The Bee Meeting’ (published in Axon, see here to explore further). And I’d be delighted if you shared ideas in the comments box about your own experience of the relationship between the subconscious and the process of writing poetry.
Lowell, Amy 1972  ‘The process of making poetry’, in G Perkins (ed) American Poetic Theory, New York: Holt, Reinhardt & Winston, 200-203
“Poet being like a radio aerial” Yes, I certainly relate to this metaphor in the context of being open/able to receive, or being in a reflective state where words and ideas are able to arise. So tuning in and finding a frequency that harmonises with a theme, idea or feeling are extensions of the same metaphor.
My favourite metaphor is ‘download’, which also implies receiving. I title a poem first with a theme to set the intention. This, I believe, prompts the subconscious and wakes it up into message/send mode. I always write on paper to help make the download as uninterrupted as possible. My initial writing process is never fully conscious, in that I try to keep any mental filtering, structuring or rational process out of the reception of the words. Being in the flow of the reception and being fully present with whatever message has been evoked never ceases to delight and amaze me. Then the subconscious has become conscious, and the secondary process of crafting the full realisation of what has been received begins.
I certainly believe I really sink into a subconscious state when writing. My best qualification for this is that within a matter of minutes after putting a newly downloaded poem away I have often completely forgotten what I wrote. Then it is always an exciting time when I begin typing up the downloads because even when seeing the words again I often don’t remember having written them. Contrasting this with the fully conscious, crafting stage, lines and stanzas will stay with me for days and weeks on end. It’s funny to think that a poem goes full cycle and ends up back in the subconscious having been throughly worked. Its expression maybe waiting for a reiteration at a higher, more advanced frequency. Next time around I might get radio national instead of the local ABC, that sounds like evolution!
Thanks for your thoughts, Sul. I like your ‘download’ metaphor – perhaps we each have a metaphor for the various stages of the process of writing. What you’re saying about forgetting that first draft once downloaded is also fascinating, and it’s interesting to begin to chart the movements in and out of the subconscious. All the best with your writing!