Let me begin with a quote by Stephen Spender, the American poet, which I found while writing an essay about inspiration in modern poetry (the essay is entitled “Raven in the Lead Mines of the World”; this statement is based heavily upon material I collected when writing the essay):
“My own experience of inspiration is certainly that of a line or a phrase or a word or sometimes something still vague, a dim cloud of an idea which I feel must be condensed into the shower of words. The peculiarity of the key word or line is that is does not merely attract as, say, the word ,braggadoccio‘ attracts. It occurs in what seems to be an active, male, germinal form as though it were the centre of a statement requiring a beginning and an end, and as though it has an impulse in some direction. …That is the terrifying challenge of poetry: Can I think out THE LOGIC OF IMAGES?”
But if the beginning of a poem—whether given by a word, a line, an image or a certain rhythm—is indeed only a beginning and a take-off point, then the real place where it all actually begins and where a poet becomes a poet is the subsequent journey of the verse. This space is not simply identical with the space of the workroom and the surrounding world. It is in this space, the space of the poem, that another act of the play—of the creative process—takes place, no less important than the first.
This special situation could be described in the following way: as if the poet disintegrated into one being who undertook his/her own journey through the space of a poem, and into another being who checks the first one and pushes away any disturbing influences and phantoms of present and past times. Translated into the vocabulary of soul and body, we can witness harmony—but sometimes also a duel—between irrational and rational parts of the soul, struggles between reason and emotions, foresight and intuition, past and future, consciousness and unconsciousness.
However, like a beatnik, a poet doesn’t actually know his/her destination. Basically, he knows where he is going: the direction is given by his first word—first verse—first image or rhythm asking to be fulfilled. But she doesn’t know the exact destination, and unlike the beatnik, she can’t stop at every stream or lawn: the word or image could disappear, and her voice could become falsetto.
A poem is simply not subject to rational dictates and goes different directions than he or she originally planned, or at least thought it would go. “Stanzas capture us, rhymes force upon us their tracks and characters we intended to move around instead move us. We are overwhelmed by the passion of a discoverer: The end is always somewhere else than we had expected at the beginning,” says J.-R. Becher, the German poet.
I could add more examples and inspiring quotes, but let me briefly summarize my own experience (which is basically in accord with the aforementioned remarks): It is good to not push things too far—sometimes a poem needs its time; you have to wait. There are poems I managed to finish within only a couple of years. One piece of mine—the record holder thus far!—has been “in the works” for about twenty years… But there are poems which are “quick,” so to speak—it always depends. In any case, one piece of general advice has been given to us by Quintilianus in his “Institutes of Oratory”: he says that the best reader of any text is its author—but only after a certain period of time (because you need some distance, of course). This is good advice, and so I’m passing it on.