Poetry & The Hidden Present

by Jay Sheets

I’ve taken on a pretty exhausting, yet exhilarating challenge this semester: to demystify the creative process by examining not only the psychology of poetry, but the link between poetic inspiration and ritual across cultures and oral histories.

Poets and psychologists could argue all day about what the meaning of ‘inspiration’ is. The etymological definition is ‘the picture to oneself,’ but the overall consensus I’ve found so far is that poetic inspiration is a call to create, derived from image (mnemonic, archetypal, literal), derived from ritual. I’ve never met a poet who didn’t have a ritual, an act to call a poem forth by placing themselves in a necessary space (physically, emotionally, a balance of both) to charge their creative batteries, and connect to the ever-mysterious stream of creative consciousness. Whether it is sitting down with a coffee and a blank computer screen with headphones on, performing an ancient shamanic dance, or experiencing a walking meditation through the woods, it’s all a form of poetic ritual. This, hopefully, results in a story and a feeling of freedom from creating something new, from experiencing something new, that’s always seemed to be present.

In Poetry and Prophecy by N.K. Chadwick, the author speaks to a ‘hidden present’ in relation to inspiration and knowledge which I, as a poet, find absolutely fascinating. Chadwick states, “The association of inspiration and knowledge of whatever kind acquired by supernatural means is ancient and widespread. Inspiration, in fact, relates to revealed knowledge. Revelation covers the whole field of human consciousness. It includes knowledge of the past and the hidden present, as well as the future.” These supernatural means Chadwick is speaking to are the rituals throughout history which result in poetic utterance, or simply, poetry.

I’d always been called to write, but it wasn’t until I recently began to deconstruct my creative processes that I saw what my writing was asking of me, and why the act of writing spoke to me when nothing and no one else ever could. When looking at ritual, imagery (or imagination, if you prefer), and finished literary works from a phenomenological point of view, in my relation to memories and physical and emotional environments throughout my life, it became evident that writing poetry, had been an act of recognizing and reconstructing, or ‘remembering,’ my personal mythology. We all have our own mythologies; the untold stories swirling deep inside that tell of our childhood traumas, current fears, loves, wonders and wants. Poetry has been the literary tool I’ve needed in order to look back through the present to look forward.

As you may be able to tell by now, I’m still deep in these studies. I invite you to take a closer look at your writerly ritual, how you use your imagination (or how your imagination uses you), and what inspiration does for you on an internal level. Since the advent of language, words have been known to carry power. Isn’t ‘spelling’ considered to be a form of casting a spell, on either ourselves or our readers? We want to evoke emotion, so I think it’s safe to say yes. Poets and writers are alchemists of language, carefully transforming images of the ‘hidden present’ as words see fit.

So, when an image pops into mind, in that ‘ah-hah!’ moment in our writerly heads where divine inspiration seems all too real, I invite you to ask what that image is asking of you in terms of your own personal mythology. Are we poets really our own psychotherapists? It seems like a reasonable theory; even Jung couldn’t satisfactorily define the poetic process.

Aren’t the simplest explanations often the right ones? When we look deeper into the spaces in which our work calls to us, we often find answers to questions we’ve not yet learned how to ask. We find out how amazing is it to have been given the gift of word, the power of language, and to help answer the questions of our ‘hidden present.’