Saturday, 14 December 2013

Why One Writes - the poet's gift

I've written about the link between scientific genius and the autism spectrum - men (mainly) with an incredible ability to focus on detail, on pursuing a theory until its proved correct; men like Isaac Newton, Adam Smith, Albert Einstein or the men who shaped today's world of IT, like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Society needs such focused minds, who can apply their minds to seemingly intractable problems. RRBI - repetitive, restricted behaviours and interests - socially not a heap of fun, but when it comes to finding solutions buried deep in the data, it's a gift.

In prehistoric culture, the tribesman who could sit all day knapping the perfect flint, ever honing the sharpness of its cutting edge, would be held in high regard, despite his lack of social skills such as story-telling around the fire. He would be the technologist of the day, his knapped flints a prized tool for killing and then skinning the hunted beasts.

The prehistoric tribe would also hold in high regard the story-teller, passing on and embroidering the tribe's shared narrative. A story-teller with added musical and/or poetic abilities would be considered a bard - his (or indeed her) place in the tribe assured.

It is the gift that makes a poet which I wish to consider, in light of my reading of two contrasting works that lead me to a similar conclusion. Polish gypsy poet Bronisława Weis ('Papusza') and Anglo-Welsh poet Nigel Humphreys, whose latest tome Of Moment, I recently received from its publisher, Jonathan Wood.

Though the language is quite different (Papusza never benefited from a day's formal education), one thing strikes me as linking the two minds - the ability to put a complex sensation into words that resonate with the reader. Reading both books, I have been thinking of the phenomenon of synaesthesia - "a neurological condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway".

There are many forms of synaesthesia - some synaesthetes associate certain sounds with specific colours; others can 'taste' letters or numbers. Poets, men and women in equal measure, I think, have a mild and beneficial form of synaesthesia allowing them to conjure words easily from sensations. Synapses fire away, stimulated by a sight, sound, smell, taste or feeling, and convert the sensations into words that the reader instantly appreciates and associates with.

Reading Papusza's experience as a gypsy child in a forest, sensing the water from a stream, falling leaves, the smell of trees in flower, her description of rushing mountain streams - we've all experienced these sensations - yet she felt them with an extraordinary intensity that forced her to write. Despite her lack of learning and the social pressure on her not to, she jotted down her feelings - complex, full of ambiguity and metaphor - and thankfully enough was preserved and translated to give a flavour of her creative mind.

I am getting a similar flavour from the poems of Nigel Humphreys; a mind that can quick-fire a stream of apt words and phrases in response to situations. His eye - indeed all his senses - are there for the reader, waiting to pounce on a set of circumstances, and turn them into words on a page that match the experience of what he saw and felt at the time.

The first condition of poetry is to have this gift - the second is to know how to edit - edit hard so as to trim the off-target perceptions and the words that failed to give truth to a scene. Poetry must be universally applicable to be able to belong to the ages; if a reader can say - "YES! That's exactly what I felt in a similar situation!" - then it works. There are seven billion of us alive today; a handful of us possess the gift of poetry in its truest sense.

My conclusion - please challenge me if you disagree or wish to nuance my assertion - is that poets are born and not made; something very special is going on in their minds that most of us lack or only possess intimations of. It is a gift, an innate ability and desire to convert sensory perceptions into well-selected words which give of themselves the sense of what the author was feeling at the time, words which then resonate in the mind of the reader.

Whether a poet is educated or not - this is my point - he or she uses words to define a complex reality. Education merely expands the vocabulary that poets have at their disposal. This in effect limits the poet's audience. But the reach of good poetry is not limited by time; it belongs to the ages. It is surely better to be read and appreciated by 1% of the population for hundreds of years than to be enjoyed by millions and be forgotten by the end of the year.

Poetry - more nature than nurture.

This time two years ago:
Advertising H&M on Warszawa Centralna station

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki in the snow

This time six years ago:
Staying Underground: Piccadilly Circus


adthelad said...

If you have a few minutes, here's something I watched today on the very topic you're blogging about. - Where did people believe creativity came from in the past?

and if you have a few minutes more here are a couple of related items concerning education and ability, something you've touched upon recently. The first is one that Rysiek pointed me to and is most inciteful, regarding the deficit of play while the second is from yesterday's Grauniad and deals with the same subject and its effects in the workplace

Hope these sources tickle your palate, best regards, A.

student SGH said...

Surely born not made...

And all the things you write about - this gift to commit ideas into paper, they are not present in one's mind all the time. A gifted poet / writer will not sit in front of a piece of paper and will not create a masterpiece when instructed by someone else. Outstanding pieces of writing are compiled when inspiration comes over.

After five years of blogging I realise best of my postings were written out of sheer, unfettered desire and inspiration, while mediocre out of duty, when I coerced myself to write against all odds.

Michael Dembinski said...

@ Adam, I'll get back when I've had a chance to read the linked pages in depth...

@ Student SGH, the more you coerce yourself to write when you don't feel like it, the better the quality of your output when the inspiration seizes you. The stuff you describe as 'mediocre' is in fact your output when you are in training. The more you do, the more likely those moments of sheer genius will turn into perfectly-honed masterpieces. Practice makes perfect... :)

Nigel humphreys said...

"poets are born and not made; something very special is going on in their minds" - I have always maintained this. A poet need never write a word but will have a mind which presumes to see more than the apparent truth in the structures of existence and put this insight to beneficial effect. If he or she can express this in words it's to others' advantage. Composers and Artists work with the same lightning.