Verse upon any theme, and in treatment ranging from the most ponderously serious to the most frivolously flippant, can be manufactured at any time. Its technique is comparatively simple. Its devices, meter, rhyme, alliteration, assonance, consonance, stanza arrangement may be mastered as easily as multiplication tables. Poetry comes differently.
It is primarily the intellect that manufactures verse; but the intellect plays only a secondary part in creating poetry. The desire that seeks expression, which it finds in the poem, springs from a deeper basic source than thinking. Man, indeed all forms of life, are compact of desires. The fulfillment of one desire causes others to spring hydra-like from its invisible corpse. Psycholo- gists tell us that dreams are likewise expressions of desire, in the form of desires fulfilled; that is, wish fulfillments. Much thinking is likewise wish fulfillment; there is truth in Wordsworth's dictum, "The wish is father to the thought." There must be, also, an obstacle to the immediate fulfillment of the wish; otherwise the poet would proceed to achieve his wish and have no need for a poem to express it. As one poet has it:
Singing is sweet; but be sure of this,
Lips only sing when they cannot kiss.
Art, James Thomson.
Because of the obstacle, a tremendous inner compulsion comes upon the sensitive poet to seek relief by creating his wish-fulfillment in words: and so it is that poems are born. This inner compulsion has, as one of its names, inspiration. Inspiration blows from no outer sky, but from the universe of desires within. The woman's insistent inner com- pulsion to deliver her child at the appointed hour is hardly more shat- ter ingly imperative than the true poet's insistent inner commandment to write. At times the whole poem forms itself within the mind, before the first word is written down. At times a couplet, a single line—perhaps the first, but more often the last—or even a phrase or a mood comes first, with the dominant insistence that it be given the intermittent immortality of writing.
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The wise procedure for the poet is to write down what comes, as it comes, even if only a single line or less is the result. As far as possible, write out the poem without delay, to prevent another visitor from Porlock's silencing part of your poem forever, as Coleridge's Kubla Khan was silenced forever. When the poem or poetic fragment is written down, the critical intellect comes into play. If technical mastery has become habitual, the intellect may have no changes to suggest.
The poet who fails to be a critic as well is usually his own self-slayer. More extended poems, of course, require more preparation and slower writing and criticism. In all cases the danger is more in the overuse of the intellect than in the use of inspiration.