Becoming a poet means being alert to the unforeseen, the unintentional, and the unsuspected.
Whatever might come into your mind that you do not quite understand, whether it’s from chance or by blunder, from luck or by miscue, is often the very summons to write a new poem. If you reject such unanticipated flashes or banish them from your mind, chances are higher that you’ll decrease the likelihood of writing poems that you’ll care about. Turning away from your own mind is turning away from poetry.
But when you embrace these accidents as something in your psyche you might desire or as some clash you have yet to fully know, you are taking a step toward your creative destiny. When you accept these fluctuations of desire or struggle, you lead yourself to make new images and new poems. The very act of composing a poem leads you to even newer encounters, newer struggles, and newer desires.
This process of continuous alertness — of listening to your mind and also listening to your poems as you write them — has a cascading effect. The more you explore what you don’t understand the more there is to explore.
Philip Larkin was a master at this kind of self-listening. His poems often redeem what he has seen and revise what he has observed — the consequence is that he revises both his outlook on the world and how to see the world, too. “The Whitsun Weddings” is a poem that embodies Larkin’s practice of poetry as an art that revises existence. It begins:
That Whitsun, I was late getting away:
Not till about
One-twenty on the sunlit Saturday
Did my three-quarters-empty train pull out,
All windows down, all cushions hot, all sense
Of being in a hurry gone. We ran
Behind the backs of houses, crossed a street
Of blinding windscreens, smelt the fish-dock; thence
The river’s level drifting breadth began,
Where sky and Lincolnshire and water meet.
All afternoon, through the tall heat that slept
For miles inland,
A slow and stopping curve southwards we kept.
Wide farms went by, short-shadowed cattle, and
Canals with floatings of industrial froth;
A hothouse flashed uniquely: hedges dipped
And rose: and now and then a smell of grass
Displaced the reek of buttoned carriage-cloth
Until the next town, new and nondescript,
Approached with acres of dismantled cars.
It’s Larkin’s awareness of the “late getting away” that represents one unforeseen, elemental impulse in this poem. Lateness calls Larkin to begin to notice. When he notices, he finds himself called forth to re-notice as well.
Thought of this way, whether your calling into writing a poem is based on accidental images or benign ones, comforting or shocking ones, formalistic or psychic ones, private or public ones, or, as in “The Whitsun Weddings,” some passing experience that merits further consideration, chance encounters are often at the root of your summons to write.
Which is what Larkin acknowledges to re-initialize the poem at the top of the third stanza:
At first, I didn’t notice what a noise
The weddings made
Each station that we stopped at: sun destroys
The interest of what’s happening in the shade,
And down the long cool platforms whoops and skirls
I took for porters larking with the mails,
And went on reading. Once we started, though,
We passed them, grinning and pomaded, girls
In parodies of fashion, heels and veils,
All posed irresolutely, watching us go,
As if out on the end of an event
To something that survived it. Struck, I leant
More promptly out next time, more curiously,
And saw it all again in different terms:
The fathers with broad belts under their suits
And seamy foreheads; mothers loud and fat;
An uncle shouting smut; and then the perms,
The nylon gloves and jewelry-substitutes,
The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochres that
Marked off the girls unreally from the rest.
Yes, from cafés
And banquet-halls up yards, and bunting-dressed
Coach-party annexes, the wedding-days
Were coming to an end.
Lines like these show that when you are writing a poem, you are searching for illumination. Breakthrough opens up important routes to memory, fantasy, insight, and dream life, the very lifeblood of poetry. Larkin maneuvers into a psychic position that allows him to find illumination. He does so by following this three-part sequence: 1) “At first I didn’t notice…” 2 ) “Struck, I leant / More promptly out next time, more curiously, ” and finally 3) “And saw it all again in different terms.”
What Larkin discovers is what he recovers. What he recovers is what he interprets and makes afresh. That is the passageway to transfiguration. When you are alert to chance revelations that initiate you into writing — and rewriting — you give yourself the opportunity to remake the world “in different terms.”
Consider your situation as a poet to be like this: Where you are in your living life before you start writing a poem and where you will be after you write that poem should always be different. It’s like getting on a train in one place, being changed by the journey, and getting off the train in another place as a different person.
When you are writing a poem, you want — through the process of writing — to have outdistanced what you knew before you started to write. And not just outdistance your knowledge, but shed what you previously understood before. You want to pass through a threshold to the new understanding that is offered you so that encounters with the unforeseen are permitted to change you. And your poem is the illustration of your new understanding.
All along, the privacy of your mind is deeply connected to the public aspects of modernity — that’s certainly true of “The Whitsun Weddings.” Not only that, when you are alert to chance revelations that initiate you into your writing, you are given the opportunity to offer a reader a transfiguring experience, too. Because where the reader is in her life before she starts to read your poem and where she will be after she reads your poem must be different also. You are offering her an occasion to go beyond her previous knowledge, to leave behind what she previously understood, and to discover new understanding.
Arthur Rimbaud’s “Départ” mythologizes the journey:
Assez vu. La vision s’est rencontrée à tous les airs.
Assez eu. Rumeurs des Villes, le soir, et au soleil, et toujours.
Assez connu. Les arrêts de la vie. Ô Rumeurs et Visions!
Départ dans l’affection et le bruit neufs!
In Francis Golffing’s translation of “Départ,” you see how he situates the poet’s calling as an effort to exist, in both poem and life, with “new sympathy.”
Enough seen. The vision has been met in all guises.
Enough heard. Clamor of the towns at night, in the sunlight, at all times.
Enough known. Life’s awards. — O Sounds and Visions!
Departure in new sympathy amid new sounds.
In a more literal translation of the last line, the poet’s calling is to exist — in both poem and life — with “affection.”
To enter into the act of writing a poem is to bring your mind into a spirit of affinity and compassion, alliance and endearment, rapport and concern, sympathy and affection. This consciousness of correspondence — to borrow a word from the French symbolists — is where poetic transfiguration occurs.
To write of the correspondence among what you have seen, heard, and known is to dramatize what you understand, discard, and transform.
But if you suspect that the world exists for you only to find what is ripe for some literary transformation, if you are just looking for the insight, for the reference, for the allusion, then you may miss the very moments opening themselves to you for reconsideration.
If, say, when you look at a tree, you immediately see ideas of fertility or cosmic linkage or the tree of life or the tree of death and you do not first see what is happening with that very tree in that very moment, then you are not seeing the crown or the trunk, the roots emerging from underground, or the stem and veins of actual leaves shimmering in actual air. Instead, you are only reporting on received literary metaphor and not being alert to the language of the moment of actual experience where you can find new correspondences and metaphors to mythologize.
To become a poet is to be alert and unsuspecting at once. To become a poet is to be open to awakening sounds of understanding. At the moment you chose to lean “more promptly out” is the moment you depart “dans l’affection et le bruit neufs.”
Will this state of unsuspecting alertness produce anxiety in your imagination? Likely, it will.
When you are separating from what you think you understand in order to explore what you don’t understand, you experience a range of apprehensions from misgiving to panic, from disquietude to distress, from mistrust to misery. But you can also experience assurance and expectation, ease and tranquility.
Writing a poem is a process of embracing the rejected, admitting the repudiated, recognizing what is unclear in the details of existence. To write a poem is to trace the roots of being and thought, feeling and metaphor.
Because your impulses to write poetry sometimes arise in the loathsome and the abominable as much as in the kind and the pleasant — in a word, the unknown, every time you write a poem you reinitiate the act of being and becoming a poet.
This is what is meant, in Arthur Rimbaud’s poem, by trying to make “new sounds” in your writing. This is what Philip Larkin, at the end of “The Whitsun Weddings,” recognizes, too. He recognizes that both he and the travelers are “ready to be loosed with all the power / That being changed can give.”
In both senses, the poet is interested in revealing newly understood bearings about the meaning of modern life.
As a poet you are called to be absorbed and aroused and enchanted and intoxicated and beguiled. You embrace occasions that leave you seduced and transfixed, overpowered and enraptured. These fascinations are the means of your poetic orientation. They bring you to understand what you find both familiar and unfamiliar.
Familiar and unfamiliar, the very substance of metaphor.
That’s why being a poet means being sympathetic to the uncharted and the nameless, the unknown and the hidden away. The meaning you discover in your writing can upend what you previously took to be true, yes. But that’s why you write poems. Through your poems you transmit new understanding back into modernity.
T. S. Eliot’s damning critique of a poet is that he “had the experience but missed the meaning.” In order not to miss the meaning in your pursuit of poetry, you must allow yourself to shift your center of gravity each time you write a poem, to accept that even in the most familiar realms of your existence you are not a master of all its meanings. People and their strivings — like exploits and enchantments throughout modern life — are available to your imagination. You may come upon them unexpectedly. They may even stumble into you. But, as you write poems, you must let them lure you away from the mundane into unrecognizable zones of your creative imagination. And then lead us all back, transfigured through your poems, with a new language and insight about living in the modern world.