Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Inspiration and the Poem as a Cauldron

                 Alesandro Paiva

True poetic practice implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than-coincidences, into a living entity – a poem that goes about on its own (for centuries after the author’s death, perhaps) affecting readers with its stored magic…the source of poetry’s creative power is not scientific intelligence, but inspiration…
Robert Graves

As Graves says, the source of a poem's creative power is inspiration, that spark which gives birth to an image, words, a rhythm or an idea and renders them charged and potent. The poet's task is therefore to attune her or his mind to receive inspiration. But that isn't the end of the story - for the poem to be able to store the magic it needs to be a sound vessel, well-crafted so that there are no chinks through which the magic can seep away.

Think of it as a cauldron - just as the ancient smiths had to be skilled at their craft when making cauldrons, the poet has to be a word-smith, hammering and shaping the poem until it is a worthy vessel. The Old Irish word for poet, fili, comes from a root meaning 'seer' and is cognate with Welsh gweled, 'to see'. The Old Irish word for poetry creth contains the meaning 'shape'and the Welsh pryd-ydd (poet, shaper) is cognate. The poet needs to be a seer and a shaper, the poem being that which is shaped.

The task of the poet or aspiring poet is then two-fold: firstly to attune and illuminate the mind to be itself a receptacle of awen, the poetic gift, and secondly to practice the poetic craft in order to make the poem into a suitable container for it.

Occasionally, when the poet is completely in harmony with its source, the poem is received fully-formed, a visitation of grace. The linguist Calvert Watkins has suggested that the image underlying creth and prydydd is one of magical transformation and perhaps, when the poet arrives at the peak of her or his craft and has a mind fully-attuned to inspiration as well as expert in the poetic craft, the poem appears as if by magic.

I hope, from time to time, to explore here these twin tasks of attunement and craft as I set off on my own poetic adventure - aided by wisdom from ancient Irish and Welsh poets as well as from traditional and contemporary poets and poetics. 

You're welcome to join me!



  1. I think that balance between technique and inspiration is crucial. Too much concentration on one can lead to the failure of the other. The phrase 'carpenters of song' from the Welsh tradition is one I like, suggesting the craft of a carpenter with the ability to sing, to be inspired by divine breath.

  2. I like that too. It sums up well the relationship of the tangible and intangible; the flow that is song and the sometimes hard, almost physical, work of shaping the poem - out of quite rough material sometimes :-)

  3. Hello Hilaire - Nice to find you! I came through your comment on Beyond The Fields We Know...

    I have been writing poetry, on and off, since childhood with no thought, way back then, as to "craft" - although now I do see poetry as a combination of word-craft and inspiration - loving words and putting them together as the muse sings. And I also love it when the words just pour themselves out on the page, needing little "crafting"/editing; knowing they came from the Source, a "visitation of grace" as you say. I love the quote from Some.

    Looking forward to your journey through poetry.


  4. Thanks for commenting, Christine, it's good to hear from you about your journey with poetry. Wishing you an inspiring 2012!