The creative process in poetry: Poet Stephen Spender (Part 1)

Discussing some of the key intellectual and emotional elements that constitute the creative component in the making of poetry, the poet Stephen Spender wrote, “The problem of creative writing is essentially one of concentration, and the supposed eccentricities of poets are usually due to mechanical habits or rituals developed in order to concentrate.” (1)

Spender cited several examples of the rituals of poets with whom he was familiar: Schiller like to have the smell of rotten apples in his desk; Walter de la Mare smoked a lot when composing; Auden drank “endless cups of tea”; and Spender said his own poetic ritual was an addiction to coffee, “besides smoking a great deal, which I never do except when writing.”

Spender noted that the above examples are “a part of a concentration which has already been attained, rather than the causes of concentration.”

Speaking about the resulting output from the mechanism of concentrating for the writing of poetry, Spender said he makes a distinction between two distinct types: “One is immediate and complete; the other is plodding and only completed in stages.”

He noted that some poets seem to write their poems as complete entities requiring little or no revision, whereas others must plod along making additions and revisions and complete their poems in stages.

Spender described his own process as follows: “I…write down as many ideas as possible, in however rough a form, in notebooks (I have at least twenty of these on a shelf beside my desk going back over fifteen years). I then make use of some of the sketches and discard the others.”

Note: Part 2 of this article will feature Spender’s thoughts on the role of other factors in the creation of poetry, such as: inspiration, memory, and “song”, or the musicality of poetry.

(1) Stephen Spender, The Making of a Poem, from the Partisan Review, Summer, 1946; the version of the article I used was contained in a symposium or anthology of articles on the creative process in the book, The Creative Process, edited by Brewster Ghiselin; a Mentor Book, published by the New American Library, by arrangement with the University of California

Wikipedia has an informative article on Stephen Spender which you can find here:

— Dennis Mellersh

About Dennis Mellersh

Dennis Mellersh is an independent writer, journalist, editor, and editorial consultant.
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