Can a poem write itself?

Geoffrey Lehmann, in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald:

“Poems are always given. You don’t write a poem, a poem writes itself….You occasionally do fake a poem and you know it,” Lehmann says. “Sometimes those fake poems confuse other people. They think it is a real poem but you know that it wasn’t really a poem, it was dictated. You cobbled it together cleverly. You didn’t have any real urge for it. Poetry is a very strange thing.”

I used to believe what Lehmann asserts here and on more than one occasion have experienced the phenomenon of “capturing” a song out of thin air. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve rejected this notion—although I wonder if I’ve swung too far to the other extreme. While I think I know what Lehmann is getting at when he says he “knows” when a poem “wasn’t really a poem,” I think it’s silly to say that a poem someone has constructed through meticulous addition and subtraction, trial and error, is not a real poem. The true test of any poem’s success is how it is received by the reader or the hearer.

At the same time, I can’t outright deny the experience of setting something down on paper (or computer screen) in a quick and effortless fashion that feels fully formed. People speak of “channeling” a poem and may even believe that God (or some other spirit) gave the poem to him or her. I don’t completely rule out spiritual intervention, especially for pagans who engage in practices like automatic writing and potentially open themselves up to the spiritual realm.

Nor do I discount the possibility of God aiding a writer with certain words, or at least aiding him with a momentary, heightened ability to order words in a pleasant or meaningful way. At any rate, I don’t think we need to completely understand this phenomenon or pursue something that God has not revealed to us in order to acknowledge the poet’s experience of “being inspired.” As believers, we should neither accept a sub-Christian view of inspiration, nor should we deny the fact that some works of art have additional momentum behind them which cannot be simply explained by the artist’s hard work.

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