Do poets go around in circles waiting for ideas to strike. It’s a popularly held misconception. If you ask the greats where their poems come from you’ll get a pretty mixed response. Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood, said T S Eliot. Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, wrote Dylan Thomas. Wallace Stevens thought it was a disappearing pheasant. You get the feeling that when it comes to the source of their inspiration these poets either don’t know or are simply not telling.
The surrealists, those artists of the strange from before the second world war were adept at hunting down where ideas sparked. The unconscious was the well spring. No good wandering around waiting for inspiration to arrive like a ray of light from a cloud. You could lose your life that way. Instead you had to work at it. These artists developed a whole raft of new processes. Writing words on bits of paper and pulling them out of a hat. Dropping papers down stairwells to see how they fell. Shuffling the pages of the novel after it had been written just to spice up the plot. Communal poems where each participant wrote successive lines. Novels written without using the letter m.
One of the best methods was automatic writing. Here authors attempted to tap the place where dreams began. The surrealists were big on dreams. The problem was their elusivity. Wake up and inevitably the realistic adventure you’ve just been involved in drains away like water into sand. The surrealists wanted to somehow harness the force behind dreams and to get the subconscious to command what was written. Their number one method was to sit before a piece of plain paper, pen in hand, and on a given signal, and with no interruption allowed for anything at all, to start writing. About anything. They scribbled as fast as they could and did so for unbroken stretches of at least half an hour. Gobbledegook would emerge, usually, and in quantity. But beneath could be something strange and otherworldly. Don’t believe me? Go home and try.
The process is easy enough. No breaks, no looking to the sky for inspiration, no sucking the end of the pen. In fact the pen is key. Whatever else happens that pen must keep moving. The method can bring surprising results.
I taught it once to a class of ten year olds. Keep the pen moving, I commanded. Never let it leave the page. Write anything. A lad came up to me at the end with several sheets of paper covered with the letter “a” repeated hundreds of times. I kept my hand moving, sir, he said. No answer to that.
An earlier version of this piece appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail.