How does a poet get his poems? Or, rather, how do poems come into the mind of the poet? That is not an easy question to answer. But it may be interesting to find out something about it. A saying of the great poet Wordsworth may give us a clue: “Poetry takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility”. This throws some light on the nature of what is called “poetic inspiration”.
In this connection, the word “inspiration’ is used in two senses. In one sense, the inspiration of a given poem is whatever suggested the poem to the poet. For example, it was the churchyard at Stoke Pogis that inspired Gray to write his well-known poem, the “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” But inspiration in the other sense means the activity of the poet’s creative imagination which enables him to express in words of power the impression he has received, and communicate it to other minds in the form of a poem.
Now in the process of the creation of a poem, inspiration, in both senses of the word, is always accompanied by strong emotion, a certain mental excitement. A mere verse-writer can knock off a set of correct verses to order and in cold blood; but no poem ever came into existence in that way.
A poet cannot write poetry to order; he must wait till the impulse comes; and the wind of inspiration “bloweth where it listeth”. This is what gives the poet the feeling that it is not he that writes the poem, but the poem that writes itself in his mind. The poem seems to “come”, to be given to him; he is inspired to write it. It really comes from within him; but it seems to come from without, as an “inspiration”, or breathing-into (as the word literally means) from some higher power. This is what the Greeks meant when they said that poets were inspired by the heavenly Muse.
But, however we may explain it, every real poem is born in a state of intense excitement. What happens seems to be something like this. Something the poet sees, hears, reads or thinks arrests his attention, excites his interest, and profoundly stirs his feelings. He passes through an emotional experience. This is the “emotion” Wordsworth speaks of; it is inspiration in its first sense.
Later, that emotional experience is “recollected in tranquility”, and produces a second emotional experience; namely, the irresistible urge to express the strong impression he received. In a second state of mental excitement (inspiration in the second sense) the poem begins to shape itself in his mind; and the poet cannot rest until it is completed. It is only the intense heat of a strong emotion that can fuse the matter and spirit of poetry into the form of a perfect poem.
So a poem begins and ends in emotion; for its origin is emotion in the poet, and its effect is emotion in the reader.