Most any artist will tell you that their source of inspiration is not always easy to pin down. Art, by definition, is not a science. There are no exact laws of inspiration, no predictable circumstances in which an idea will germinate. Artists do tend to agree on this very unpredictability; as Carson McCullers puts it, “The focus [of artistic inspiration] comes at random moments which no one can understand, least of all the author.” Being an artist of any kind is sort of like walking through life, waiting to get jumped – by ideas.
This is not to say anybody can be an artist at any time, nor a good one. At least two elements are necessary (one given, the other self-generated): temperament and hard work.
Elizabeth Bowen once noted on temperament:
“The writer . . . has no predisposed outlook; he seldom observes deliberately. He sees what he did not intend to see; he remembers what does not seem wholly possible. Inattentive learner in the schoolroom of life, he keeps some faculty free to veer and wander. His is the roving eye. By that roving eye is his subject found . . . Writers do not find subjects; subjects find them. Temperamentally, the writer exists on happenings, on contacts, conflicts, action and reaction, speed, pressure, tension. Were he a contemplative purely, he would not write. His moments of intake are inadvertent.”
Artists generally can subconsciously take in the world in various ways: sights, scents, sounds, and play and interplay them without thinking. They can also recall these things in moments of inspiration.
The second element of inspiration is hard work. As Denise Levertov observes, if one wrote only poems that came purely by inspiration, “one would have, as it were, no occupation.” Some art only comes after hours of work, sometimes frustrated work. Again, McCullers notes, “For me, [moments of artistic inspiration] usually follow great effort. To me, these illuminations are the grace of labor . . . After months of confusion and labor, when the idea has flowered, the collusion is Divine.”
A few weeks ago, I was walking along my city’s waterfront when I noticed a flag unfurling in the breeze. Suddenly, I thought about how a heart is like a flag; just as a flag unfurled by the wind reveals its colors and markings, so our hearts, when buffeted by the winds of life, show what is stamped upon them. Scraps of ideas for lines based upon this concept started evolving in my head. A flag unfurling under duress has a militaristic feeling to it, and being a huge Lord of the Rings fan, I suppose I had in my subconscious a few key moments in that story where an unfurling banner serves an important role, such as when Aragorn reveals the standard of the white tree which Arwen has made for him, or when he plants it upon the hills before the Gates of Mordor in final battle.
Then a line came into my head: “Down from the mountains of madness, sweeping.” That, of course, is an allusion to the title of one of H.P. Lovecraft’s novellas, At the Mountains of Madness. I had been reading about how Guillermo Del Toro may be making a movie about the story, so I suppose that was still floating in my mind. The phrase “mountains of madness” is catchy, so it came up easily from the depths of my brain.
With both the militaristic/fantasy elements of the flag/heart metaphor, and the sound of that first line, I knew this poem was leaning towards an epic feeling. I also knew that something evil had to be sweeping down from these mountains of madness, so I decided that I wanted to use the older term “fell,” an Old English word used to describe something dangerous and evil. So my second line became: “the shadow of fell forces gathers, gleaming.” At this point, I knew a rhyming pattern was emerging, and I decided that I would follow it, making every line end with the suffix “-ing.” I also knew that I wanted to make the poem very alliterative, as famous epic pieces such as Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight adopt this style.
I also decided that the poem should sound very elemental – that it should allude to natural forces, once again reflecting The Lord of the Rings, especially when dark clouds presage the attack of Mordor upon Minas Tirith.
The central flag/heart metaphor meant the poem would reflect the battles of life and spiritual warfare and the importance of my own faith in my life. In the end, all of those elements came together to look like this:
Down from the mountains of madness, sweeping
the shadow of fell forces gathers, gleaming
in a twilight that is not illumination, harrowing,
aided by hell-hound and Greek fire, grinding
a slow and sadistic siege, soul-numbing
upon my seven-walled city, shining
under clouds that surge like seawater, storming
the very foundations of earth, overturning.
And though all around me shakes, upending,
and my foes foam up like a flood, overwhelming,
though my friends fall at my side, unfailing,
and the faithless make their retreat, bewailing,
may the withering winds that bear down, hot-breathing
unfurl like a flag my heart, revealing
the sign of your stigma upon me, burning
like a beacon of boldening light, proclaiming,
and with each beat blaze in the black, benighting,
until the imperial sun arises, only now sleeping.
This piece was probably more inspiration than hard work, although I have certainly had my days and even months of frustration that finally birthed creativity. But it is interesting to see how my own process reflected that of others like Bowen, Levertov, and McCullers. My own sort of subconscious observations and musing grabbed hold of the moment of inspiration and worked with it to create art.
All artists: poets, painters, authors, musicians, and more, though our artistic expressions, experiences, and inspirations are different, find upon reflection that we are a similar type of human being. We are inspired to observe, to feel, to be blessed by moments of mysterious inspiration, but also called to labor and sweat over our creations in order to produce moments, words, and objects of beauty.