Inspiration and Hallucination

Following the Jaynesian streak I have been engaging in on this blog, allow me to quote a fascinating anecdote about poetic inspiration from Daniel B. Smith’s excellent book Muses, Madmen, and Prophets. The book goes into detail analyzing various aspects of “voice-hearing”, or in more psychiatric parlance: auditory hallucination; I highly recommend it. To put the quote into context, Smith is analyzing poetic inspiration in terms of hallucination.

Theodore Roethke once revealed in a lecture how his poem “The Dance” came about. It was 1952, and he was living alone in a large house in Edmonds, Washington. He was forty-four years old and teaching poetry at the University of Washington, in Seattle. For weeks Roethke had been teaching his students the five-beat line and reading exemplars of that form: Walter Raleigh and John Davies. For months, however, he had been unable to write anything of worth himself, and he had come to consider himself a fraud. Then, one evening, Roethke was sitting at home when “The Dance” suddenly came to him. It came quickly and with great strength, and in less than an hour he was done:

I felt, I knew, that I had hit it. I walked around, and I wept; and I knelt down — I always do after I’ve written what I know is a good piece. But at the same time I had, as God is my witness, the actual sense of a Presence–as if Yeats himself were in that room. The experience was in a way terrifying, for it lasted at least half an hour. That house, I repeat, was charged with a psychic presence: the very walls seemed to shimmer. I wept for joy…He, they – the poets dead – were with me.

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