The creative process in poetry: Poet Stephen Spender (Part 2)

When most of us think of how the mind of a poet works, we probably imagine that “inspiration” is the major driving force; however the poet Stephen Spender says that the biggest part of writing poetry is simply hard, creative work.

Spender writes, “…everything in poetry is work except inspiration, whether this work is achieved in one swift stroke, as Mozart wrote his music, or whether it is a slow process of evolution from stage to stage.” (1)

What then, is the role of inspiration in poetic creativity?

“Inspiration,” Spender says, “is the beginning of a poem and it is also its final goal. It is the first idea which drops into the poet’s mind and it is the final idea which he*at last achieves in words. In between this start and the winning post, there is the hard race, the sweat and toil.”

Spender further explains, “My own experience of inspiration is certainly that of a line or a phrase, or a word or sometimes something still vague, a dim cloud of an idea which I feel must be condensed into a shower of words.”

The role of memory in poetic creation

Somewhat in the manner that the Romantic Period poet William Wordsworth described the making of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility”, Spender sees memory as a vital component, and writes that memory, used in a particular way is the basis of poetic genius.

“The poet,” Spender writes, “above all else, is a person who never forgets certain sense-impressions which he has experienced and which he can re-live again and again as though with all their original freshness.”

The element of “song” or the “music” of poetry

Spender sees “song” as a critical element in poetry, yet it is one which he says  is hard to define:

“It is the music which a poem yet unthought of will assume, the empty womb of poetry forever in the poet’s consciousness, waiting for the fertilizing seed…Sometimes when I am writing, the music of the words I am trying to shape takes me far beyond the words, I am aware of a rhythm, a dance, a fury, which is as yet empty of words.”


* Gender pronoun use observation: Stephen Spender (1909-1995), in this instance, wrote these comments in 1946, a time before the use of he/she or the more recent non-gender pronoun custom became more customary. However, I don’t think it is culturally/historically appropriate for me as a writer, to actually alter/change what he wrote in order to reflect current and more appropriate personal pronoun custom and usage.

Part 3 of this article will feature Spender’s thoughts on the vocation or the calling, or the compulsion of writing 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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