Creative process in poetry: Northrop Frye: How a poet develops

As with gaining facility and maturity in any creative field, the road to mastery in writing poetry is a steep climb encumbered by many obstacles, including the requirement to write a great deal before any degree of proficiency and quality is achieved.

Literary critic and theorist Northrop Frye, author of the influential  Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays, succinctly describes the typical stages in the development of a poet in his book The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination. (1)

Frye comments that “The technical development of a modern lyrical poet is normally from obscurity to simplicity” because in the early stages of learning the craft, the writer’s images “will be rooted in private associations, images which are linked to ideas through his* own hidden and unique memory.

At this stage of the poet’s development, the developing poet can write “only what takes shape in his mind” and the poet needs to keep writing to make sure they eventually pass beyond this stage and don’t get “stuck” in it.

Next the poet is “likely to pass through a social, allegorical, or metaphysical phase, an awkward and painful phase for all concerned.”

Maturing poets, however continue to work on improving their ability until eventually they achieve a breakthrough:

“Finally a mysterious but unmistakable  ring of authority begins to come into his writing, and simultaneously the texture simplifies, meaning and imagery become transparent, and the poetry becomes a pleasure instead of a duty to read.”

All of this achieved, in Frye’s words only with a “heroic supply” of:


And, “The process cannot of course be hurried by an act of will.”

(1) Northrop Frye, The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination, House of Anansi Press Ltd., pp. 22-23

* Written at time when the fall-back position with general-focus pronoun references was usually masculine.

Dennis Mellersh


About Dennis Mellersh

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