No 34 - Spring 2006
Poetry in Practice: Creative Flow
Mark McGuinness talks to some contemporary poets
Years ago I read that Isaac Asimov couldn’t wait to sit down at his writing desk in the morning and had to be dragged away from it at night because he was enjoying himself so much. I was amazed. How often do writers talk about their work as something enjoyable? Perhaps I’m being unfair, but the more typical response seems to be this one from Peter de Vries: “I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.” On the other hand, there must be some pleasure in the act of writing, especially for poets, since most of us are certainly not in it for the money and there are surer routes to fame. For this article I spoke to some leading contemporary poets and trawled through the writings of past masters, as well as dipping a toe in the waters of psychology, to see what I could learn about the elusive joy of writing.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the term ‘flow’ to describe the state of absorption in the creative process. He defines flow as “an automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness”, which results from stretching our abilities in the pursuit of a meaningful challenge. The elements of creative flow include: clear goals; a balance between challenges and skills; total absorption in the task; a distorted sense of time; and an absence of distractions, worry and self-consciousness. Csikszentmihalyi distinguishes flow from mere indulgence in pleasure (which is typically short-lived and unsatisfying) and characterises it as ‘autotelic’ – an end in itself. Or as Noël Coward put it more pithily, “Work is more fun than fun”. To which most writers would probably add “sometimes”.
I asked Susan Wicks if her experience of writing was anything like Asimov’s or Coward’s:
It can be, when I’m writing in the right circumstances, and
especially when I’m writing poetry. I certainly lose all sense of
time when I’m concentrating, and it’s a luxury to be able to
indulge that… At its best it brings a kind of euphoria.
This is strikingly similar to Csikszentmihalyi’s description of flow: the emphasis on the ‘right circumstances’, a distorted sense of time, and feelings of intense enjoyment. It is also interesting to hear Wicks say that she is more likely to experience flow when writing poetry, since poetry has long been ascribed a magical quality that distinguishes it from prose, partly because of the altered state of consciousness which was thought necessary for its composition – as reflected in old-fashioned terms such as poetic ‘inspiration’, ‘trance’ or ‘ecstasy’.
Paul Farley also found it easy to recognise the experience of flow when I described it to him:
Yes, being ‘in the zone’ when you’re writing well is pleasurable,
effortless, and anything can and often does bubble up from God
knows where. It’s like you’re conducting an orchestra of
everything that is the case with you, what you’ve done, who
you’ve loved, what you’ve seen and read, all the sensory data
you’ve stored: there are different sections which can all play
together in concert, which normally wouldn’t.
This orchestra is a wonderful metaphor for the unifying, organising and harmonising qualities of creative flow. Farley’s description gives us a vivid sense of the engagement of his whole mental, emotional and physical being in the act of writing. The description also suggests a sensory richness to the experience. Though individuals may have a favoured sense, all the poets I spoke to clearly engage several senses together. Synaesthesia – a link or translation between different senses – also occurs frequently in their descriptions.
Myra Schneider told me “I think through seeing … I love painting and colour” and described how a piece of visual art was the inspiration for the poem Bird (published on page 53 of this issue):
The sculpture which set off Bird was a semi-abstract evocation
of a bird with the wings thrust back, the wonderful curve of the
bird’s breast …I was struck by the fact that a sculpture made of
weighty material … gave such a sense of lightness and flight. This
‘birdness’ somehow must have entered me (body reference
again!) because when I woke in the night and began making
notes on a piece of paper, I was already making jottings in the
voice of the bird, the rhythm of the bird.
Here Schneider describes a transition from an initial visual image (the sculpture) to a physical sensation (“a sense of lightness and flight”)through to an auditory “voice” and “rhythm”. Elsewhere in the interview, Schneider told me “I hear the poem all the time I’m writing … in my own voice and in others’ voices”, emphasising the importance of the auditory imagination even for such a self-confessed ‘visual thinker’. In his essay The Making of a Poem, Stephen Spender describes a similar experience of listening to an inner voice:
Sometimes, when I lie in a state of half-waking, half-sleeping, I
am conscious of a stream of words which seem to pass through
my mind, without their having a meaning, but they have a sound,
a sound of passion, or a sound recalling poetry that I know.
It is perhaps unsurprising to learn that an inner voice is integral to the consciousness of poets in the act of composition, yet it is not always so significant. Susan Wicks told me that her imagination “is predominantly visual rather than auditory”:
For me the auditory phenomenon is less important, and
paradoxically less important for poetry than it is for prose fiction,
where it’s often a matter of hearing a voice, hearing a character
speak in his or her own tone and language. Often when I’m
writing fiction I do hear a whole scene in my head and write it
down as if under dictation (subject to later editing, obviously).
For poetry, the ‘voice’ is less important than a kind of ideal
transparency. What I’m doing feels more like painting than
For Matthew Sweeney, the poem begins as a predominantly visual phenomenon, but by the time it is complete, sound has become the critical sense:
Everything starts for me with the image. Visualising is the way the
poem proceeds – image following image – although, of course,
the noise of a poem is also important … The images come out in
words, and these are shaped by the ear into phrases that have to
feel right, sound-wise – and every poem has a distinct and
different sound, or series of sounds to it. It’s because of that that
I cannot – despite repeated attempts, and despite remembering
the images and the narrative details – recreate a poem I lost
when my computer wiped everything out. I cannot recreate the
sound-world of the poem.
What may be more surprising than the inner voice is the frequency with which poets describe the creative flow state as an intensely physical experience. Wicks notices bodily discomfort when she is not writing as she would like to, and a sense of physical release when this is resolved:
But as long as I’m writing in one way or another I feel real.
What’s dangerous is the times when my job or other
circumstances actually prevent me from writing at all – when I
start feeling definitely out of balance, out of touch with the outside
world, even depressed. I can feel a kind of pressure building up
then, which it’s a relief to release. It’s a very sexual metaphor,
and an almost completely sexual feeling … As I said earlier,
there’s a kind of pressure – a headachey sort of feeling – when I
can’t find time to write. And the process of writing poetry feels
erotic, however incongruous its subject.
Note the predominance here of words describing sensations and tactile impressions: “I feel real…feeling definitely out of balance, out of touch… a kind of pressure… a relief to release… an almost completely sexual feeling… a headachey sort of feeling… feels erotic”. In The Name and Nature of Poetry, A.E. Housman offers a similarly physical description of the genesis of a poem:
Having drunk a pint of beer at luncheon ... I would go for a walk
of two or three hours. As I went along, thinking of nothing in
particular, only looking at things around me and following the
progress of the seasons, there would flow into my mind, with
sudden and unaccountable emotion, sometimes a line or two of
verse, sometimes a whole stanza at once, accompanied, not
preceded, by a vague notion of the poem which they were
destined to form part of. Then there would usually be a lull of an
hour or so then perhaps the spring would bubble up again. I say
bubble up, because, so far as I could make out, the source of the
suggestions thus proffered to the brain was an abyss ... the pit of
Here the poem is not only started by the physical action of walking, but the words themselves “bubble up… from the pit of the stomach” in a striking synaesthetic transformation. Walking seems to be a favourite activity of poets seeking inspiration (not to mention the pint of beer). Here is William Hazlitt on the Lake Poets:
Coleridge has told me that he himself liked to compose in
walking over uneven ground, or breaking through the straggling
branches of a copse wood; whereas Wordsworth always wrote
(if he could) walking up and down a straight gravel walk, or in
some spot where the continuity of his verse met with no collateral
interruption. (My First Acquaintance with Poets)
Hazlitt suggests an analogy between the two poets’ walking and writing styles, which Seamus Heaney characterises as “the almost physiological operation of the poet composing” (The Makings of a Music). Heaney’s countryman Ciaran Carson writes in the introduction to his version of Dante that “The deeper I got into the Inferno, the more I walked. Hunting for a rhyme, trying to construe a phrase, I’d leave my desk and take to the road, lines ravelling and unravelling in my mind”. In a more modern variation, Heaney has confessed in a radio interview that his wife gets nervous when she sees his fingers tapping out rhythms on the steering wheel, as it means he’s working on a poem while driving.
Sometimes the relationship between writing and the body can have an immediacy that goes beyond literature. In her book Writing My Way Through Cancer, Myra Schneider describes how on the night before an operation she dealt with her fears by writing them all down very rapidly – a form of writing, she told me, that was emphatically “not literary” and which produced an immediate physiological effect:
“I felt hugely lightened… it meant I could sleep that night”. The book describes her use of writing as part of her healing and recovery process. She told me that although this was not literary writing, it did lead to poems that were. It seems to be an extreme but consistent manifestation of her belief that in writing it is important to get past the “intellectual controlling mind” to “something that really matters”.
But how, in typically less extreme circumstances, can a poet get past this barrier and into the flow of writing? For Schneider, starting to write often produces “an uncomfortable feeling” and she believes that our desire for security and control often means “we don’t go far enough”. In his replies to my questions, Matthew Sweeney also highlighted the need to take risks. One of his solutions involves a writing companion that has found favour with many poets:
I don’t really have a writing routine or ritual, although – unless it’s
early in the day – I usually have a glass of red wine beside me.
Too much wine makes for loose writing and an irritated read the
next morning, but a little is freeing and encourages one to take
At other times Sweeney’s imagination is stimulated by human companions:
Sometimes being out among people one doesn’t know or
communicate with can paradoxically help one reach that quiet,
focused place where poems happen.
This paradoxical quality may be a result of the essentially involuntary character of flow. Most poets seem to agree with Shelley that “A man cannot say ‘I will compose poetry’”. Paul Farley was quite definite on this point when I asked him:
I don’t tend to deliberately try and fall into a state conducive to
writing … It’d be good to be able to, but it doesn’t quite work
like that. I think you get better at recognising it, over time,
though, and become more able to sustain the mood.
The initial inspiration for his poems seems to arise out of an openness to the life around him, and the ability to ‘recognise’ the promptings of his imagination in response to certain stimuli:
Mostly, I’m not a writer: I’m living my life and getting on with
things. Like I say, sudden re-alignments and urges to write are
essentially mysterious, and tend to mug you … I’ve always found
the triggers, the little clicks that make you want to stop whatever
it is you’re doing and start writing, completely unpredictable …
Maybe chime is a better verb. Something you hadn’t thought or
felt before in a certain way or relationship clicks into place, and
there’s a harmonious feeling to it all. A slight re-alignment. I’m
not claiming any great originality: as long as it has the force of
revelation to me, then it’s worth paying attention to. More often
than not you’re nowhere near writing equipment or a computer,
but I’ve found I’m usually able to recall the initial phrase or line.
It’s more than simply the act of remembering.
This seems closer to Hardy’s concept of the poet as “a man who used to notice such things” than Wordsworth’s more deliberate “emotion recollected in tranquility”. The unpredictable character of his Muse means that Farley’s poems are frequently written in spite of a conscious intention to do something else:
I don’t have any set routines or ‘poem traps’… Wim Wenders
said something that rings true: he was able to do all kinds of
thinking on journeys or while he was out in the world, but once
he sat himself down at a desk…nothing. It all dried up. A large
part of writing poetry for me has been skiving, wriggling out of
things that needed doing, carving out time in an already busy day.
For Farley, the idea of poetry as “something I’m not supposed to be doing” is “a great enabler”. Susan Wicks shares this view, saying “I still sometimes have that feeling of being allowed to do something delicious and not obviously useful, and perhaps forbidden”. Yet she is also happy to use more deliberate strategies for getting into creative flow. I showed her the following passage from Spender’s article as a springboard for discussion:
the problem of creative writing is essentially one of concentration,
and the supposed eccentricities of poets are usually due to
mechanical habits or rituals developed in order to concentrate …
Schiller liked to have a smell of rotten apples, concealed beneath
the lid of his desk, under his nose when he was composing
poetry. Walter de la Mare has told me that he must smoke when
writing. Auden drinks endless cups of tea. Coffee is my own
addiction, besides smoking a great deal, which I hardly ever
do except when I am writing.
With my own background in using hypnosis to facilitate creativity, I suggested that the various rituals and other stimuli Spender describes actually work by association: reproduce the appropriate stimulus and the body reproduces the state of mind. Wicks replied: I do absolutely believe in the association mechanism you describe. I brought a bottle of Dial handwash back with me from the US one summer to remind me of working among the visual artists at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts… At MacDowell last January I was waking at 4 a.m. almost with poems already in my head and trudging out into the woods with my torch in the snow to my studio to write as much as I could as soon as I could. Just stepping out into the dark and the falling snow was enough. The desire to write poems was so clear and near the surface that it was as if the real work had been happening while I slept. At home it’s much harder – but still there’s a rhythm of ‘clearing the decks’, then ‘writing as a habit’, e.g. in my diary, notes, etc, and then a kind of feeling of space where a poem or the idea for a story or novel might start to happen.
Speaking of the ‘euphoria’ of creative flow, she said
When you learn to connect it with a certain conjunction of
circumstances I think your brain begins to expect it and – so to
speak – salivate. Reproduce the circumstances, and you find you
get the same euphoric anticipation, and then the same high-quality
attention, very quickly and easily.
At times she goes beyond reproducing the external triggers for the
creative flow state, and uses visualisation to change her state of consciousness while writing:
But when I wasn’t well about fifteen years ago I somehow got
into the habit of thinking of my brain as a tree stretching its leaves
towards the sun. It sounds really stupid when I write it down –
but the fact is that when I’m writing I still stop for a moment and
do it sometimes and it brings intense pleasure and a feeling of
possibility and renewal. (I’m trusting you not to laugh at this!)
Having worked with numerous creative professionals, this doesn’t sound “stupid” at all to me, but rather very familiar; whenever we get close to the intimate workings of the imagination, there can be a concern that it will seem odd to others, yet these very idiosyncrasies create the distinctive character of an individual talent.
Though I encountered many such individual differences in the poets I interviewed for this article, I also noticed many similarities in their descriptions of creative flow. And they all agreed that the experience of flow can make many of the frustrations of the writing life worthwhile. As Matthew Sweeney says:
it comes so easily that afterwards I wonder why I don’t write
poems all the time.
Finally, how about you? Can you relate to these descriptions of creative flow? If so, what helps you get into flow? Share your experiences with other readers on the Magma web forums at
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