|Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. |
Illustration by Jonathan Burton
Exploring the mysteries of literary inspiration
By SD Tucker
Mention Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath to the average poetry fan, and the first thing that comes to mind (other than the poetry, of course) is likely to be images of doomed romance, suicide, or love gone sour. Less well known are the pair’s experiments with the Ouija board. According to Hughes, in a note to his wife’s poem, Ouija, Plath “occasionally amused herself, with one or two others, by holding her finger on an upturned glass, in a ring of letters laid out on a smooth table, and questioning the ‘spirits’.” 
These communications were frequent enough for Plath to pen an unpublished verse dialogue, sometime in 1957 or 1958, entitled Dialogue Over a Ouija Board, and featuring, appropriately enough, a character named ‘Sibyl’. The Sibyls, of course, were ancient priestesses often credited with the gift of prophecy, and the link to Plath’s ‘talking board’ sessions is that, one day in 1956, sick of communicating with somewhat morbid and pallid entities who, in her words, “hymned the rotten queen with saffron hair… That bawdy queen of death”, she and Hughes decided to ask to speak to a spirit who could do something useful for them – namely, to predict the future.
This request soon paid dividends for the couple; almost literally, as an entity calling itself ‘Pan’ came through, offering to predict the results of that week’s football pools for them. However, things didn’t turn out quite as promised with Pan – as explained by Hughes in a poem of his own, also called Ouija, from his well-known collection Birthday Letters:
He picked thirteen draws. ‘That’s not many.’
‘Just enough,’ he replied. He was right –
But spaced all down the column of matches
His accurately picked-off thirteen draws,
The whole clutch, were adrift by a single match
Ahead of the day’s results. ‘Too eager?’ ‘Yes.’
He apologised. He swore to correct himself.
Needless to say, ‘Pan’ never did correct himself, and the poet-lovers never did collect their winnings for that week, a tidy sum of around £75,000 – a lot of money now, but a genuine fortune back in 1956. More significantly for the subject of this article, the half-lying spirit of the Ouija also popped up on occasion to discuss poetry with the couple via the medium of glass and board. Apparently, his favourite poetry was that to be found in King Lear; but he couldn’t remember, quite, what his favourite line from Shakespeare’s great play was. This fact, it seems, caused Pan to bemoan the state of his memory, in fairly sublime terms:
‘Why shall I ever be perplexed thus?
I’d hack my arm off like a rotten branch
Had it betrayed me as my memory.’
The poetic quality – and beauty – of this phrase is obvious. Hughes himself, later to become poet laureate, and one of the English language’s best-loved versifiers, was impressed enough by it to write “Where did he find that? Or did he invent it?” In those lines, Hughes sums up quite succinctly the nature of the whole debate around poetic inspiration; in short, where do poets get their ideas from? Do they invent them themselves, consciously? Or are the ideas ‘given’ to them, somehow, from somewhere beyond the confines of their own heads – and, if so, from where?
It’s common for poets – and, indeed, for artists of every type – to assert that their best ideas just seem to come to them, whole and fully-formed, apparently from nowhere. Those works that they have to consciously, and perhaps mechanically, labour over often turn out, it would seem, to be the least satisfactory. Examples of these kinds of statements are legion, but let us stick with Ted Hughes for one particularly striking example.
The story goes that while still an undergraduate at Cambridge in the 1950s, Hughes, exhausted from writing a constant stream of essays on literature, fell asleep at his desk one night. These essays, he felt, were not truly creative exercises, more a kind of analytical labour. As if to bring home this fact to him, a memorable dream – a message from another realm, if you will – gave him a harsh, yet beautifully expressed message. In it, a flaming bipedal fox entered Hughes’s room, walked across to the essay that lay still unfinished on his desk, and left a burning paw-print on the paper before turning to Hughes and saying, in no uncertain terms: “You are killing us."
The import of the fox’s message was obvious to Hughes: the beautiful and numinous image of the fox represented his poetic instincts – raw, natural, aflame – and too much conscious mental drudgery was killing them off. As a result, he switched his course from English to anthropology, his studies of ‘primitive’ belief-systems later providing a distinct influence on his work. Later in life, Hughes came to view the poet as being, in a sense, almost a shaman, a communicator with an eternal realm from which he brought back great treasures, expressed in combinations of beautiful words. From this perspective, the burning fox could be seen as Hughes’s totemic animal, a kind of messenger from the spirit world. Certainly, it was a remarkable spontaneous image – fully formed, coherent and possessing a great deal of mysterious beauty. Like many a great poetic conceit, it seems to have arrived ‘just like that’, apparently from nowhere. As you might expect, Hughes later incorporated the dream-message into one of his best poems, The Thought-Fox, in which he talks of sitting, blank-minded, in front of an essay,
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
Here, the “dark hole of the head” clearly represents the sort of mental state in which anything approaching inspiration is completely absent – and no amount of conscious thought can fill this void with anything worthwhile. The only solution, for Hughes, is to go to sleep and wait for something to burst into his consciousness of its own accord. Once it has, as he then puts it: “The page is printed”. The poem, at least in terms of its essential imagery, if not its final line-by-line construction, has written itself rather than being consciously created by the poet.
So, did Hughes really write this poem? His name might be on the front cover of his book, but were the ideas themselves actually his? Most of us would say, yes, of course he did, perhaps with a little help from his subconscious. But there have been a number of attempts to reconfigure the role of the poet not simply as a gifted craftsman or artist, but as a communicator with some kind of eternal – and perhaps even supernatural – realm.
THE POET AS MEDIUM
The most famous example, of course, is Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his well-known poem Kubla Khan, also referred to by him as A Vision in a Dream. As every schoolboy used to know, the story – as related by Coleridge in a short preface to the poem – goes that, in 1797, the poet, suffering from a bout of ill-health, had retired to “a lonely farm house” near the village of Porlock in Exmoor where, after taking opium as an anodyne, he had fallen fast asleep in his chair. Over the next three hours, claimed Coleridge, he must have composed to himself between two and three hundred lines, “if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort”. Upon waking, Coleridge immediately set about putting this great, God-given masterwork to paper; until, disturbed by a knock at the door from an annoying visitor, he found, to his everlasting despair, that upon sitting down at his table to write again he could not remember more than a few scattered lines and images, all the rest having “passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone had been cast”.
So much for the story. Sadly, of course, it appears to be untrue. Rather than being intended to be taken literally, it seems that Coleridge meant his tale to be read as a kind of metaphor for the nature of much poetic creation – namely, that it comes unbidden, and that the waking world around us is at best a hindrance to its bearing fruit. Given this, it is perhaps interesting that Coleridge uses, at the end of his preface, the image of the ideas coming through to the poet through the medium of the surface of some water – echoes, perhaps, of the practice of scrying. This was used by occultists of the past, such as Nostradamus or John Dee, who would attempt to see into the eternal realm by staring for prolonged periods into a bowl of water (or a polished mirror) until either spirits, or visions of the future, appeared upon the smooth surface. This idea is further reinforced by a short poetic fragment attached by Coleridge to his preface. The relevant lines read:
Poor youth! Who scarcely dar’st lift up thine eyes –
The stream will soon renew its smoothness, soon
The visions will return! And lo! He stays,
And soon the fragments dim of lovely forms
Come trembling back, unite, and now once more
The pool becomes a mirror.
Scrying into an unseen world, then… but what, exactly, was this world? When discussing Coleridge’s explanations, we must first bear in mind that the writer was heavily influenced, throughout his life, by his youthful reading of the ancient mystical philosophers known as the Neoplatonists. While still at school, it appears, he was able to hold forth about the writings of Plotinus and Iamblichus, to the astonishment of his classmates. As a reading of his famous and influential Biographia Literatia, a kind of ‘literary biography’ penned by Coleridge, shows, he was also influenced by such mystic writers as Jacob Boehme and Giordano Bruno. Steeped as he was in this ‘hidden tradition’ of occult Neoplatonism, it is perhaps no surprise that Coleridge sought to explain his encounters with the poetic imagination in deeply mystical language.
According to Coleridge, there were two types of imagination – primary and secondary. Primary imagination he described as being “the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” The secondary imagination, however, was simply “an echo of the former, coexisting with the conscious will… It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create… It is essentially vital, even as all objects… are essentially fixed and dead.” 
This concept of primary imagination is steeped in Neoplatonist thought. One of the basic ideas of Neoplatonism concerns the two-way interaction of the divine and the human. To simplify immensely, man is conceived of as being both enfleshed soul and ensouled flesh, and both gain from this process. Seen as being something vast and impersonal, the soul gains an individual, living, finite perspective upon its eternal nature; mortal man, in return, is given access to some form of perception of, and share in, eternity. In this way, then, the primary imagination, for Coleridge, could be seen as a kind of analogue of the Neoplatonist idea of the anima mundi, or ‘soul of the world’, often conceived of as being a kind of spiritual storehouse of a multitude of potential forms, those archaic, primal images known, in Jungian terminology, as the ‘archetypes’. For Coleridge, this was the purest realm of ideas – and it was divine.
This, then, is where inspiration comes from. As the word seems to suggest, when we are inspired, we are, literally, breathing in the air of the spirit; spirare, from which both the words spirit and inspired are ultimately derived, means ‘to breathe in’. What we are breathing in when inspired, according to Coleridge, is nothing other than the anima mundi. Through performing this act, the poet is sharing, in some sense, in the divine act of creation itself, which is then reflected in the inferior yet nonetheless beautiful act of the production of poetry; or, in a more general sense, of art itself. Primary imagination, then, is the act of perception of the divine beauty; secondary imagination is the act of writing it down in a poetic way.
This definition of the secondary imagination sounds negative, of course – as we have already seen, Coleridge wrote that it simply “dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to re-create” – yet, of course, it is no such thing. It is simply the difference between the actual perception of the beauty in a field of daffodils, say, and its slightly inferior – yet still beautiful – expression in words. Think also of the indescribable numinosity that must have been present in a biblical prophet’s encounter with the godhead, and the verbal biblical description of that encounter. Not quite the same thing, perhaps – yet still good enough to found a religion on.
THE MIND'S EYE
So far, so shamanic: the poet is inspired by some eternal force, and, in a frenzy of creative activity, acts to transform that experience, through writing, into a reflection of it. And yet, not all writers and theorists have accepted that poetic inspiration comes from some kind of quasi-supernatural realm. Throughout the 20th century, with the rise of Freudianism, attempts have been made to reconfigure this realm of primary imagination – or the anima mundi, if you prefer – as something being found in either the personal subconscious of an individual, or, with Jung and his followers, in the ‘collective unconscious’ of the race or species.
Take, for example, the writer and psychological researcher Stan Gooch, who, in his book The Origins of Psychic Phenomena (first published as Creatures from Inner Space) tells us of his experiences in lucid dreaming/astral travel, wherein he was able to journey through vivid, and to all intents and purposes experientially real, internal worlds. These worlds contained, amongst other delights, what appeared to be books – “perhaps full of exquisite illustrations, or poetry” – which, while dreaming, Gooch would pick up and start to read. Some appeared to be novels.  Gooch’s explanation for the pre-existence of such independently produced literary products is revealing: “It is as if the brain has in it a country full of factories that no one has ever heard about, producing goods that have not been ordered and will never be delivered.”  The word ‘brain’ in that quote is key: Gooch isn’t talking about the anima mundi, or God, or whisperings in the ear from the world of spirits.
The central thesis of Gooch’s book is that the dream-making part of the human brain – the cerebellum – is, somehow, able to externalise and to a degree personify itself in a number of ways: apparent poltergeists, incubi and succubi, paranormal fire-raising, and so forth.
As such, Gooch’s idea mirrors other modern attempts made in parapsychology to ‘deromanticise’ the subject, as seen in the trend, current from at least the 1960s/70s onwards, of re-christening poltergeists as being nothing more than ‘Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis’, or ‘RSPK’; that is to say, unconscious bursts of psychic energy sent out from the victim’s mind, moving tables around and breaking plates, rather than invisible ghosts or demons.
As in parapsychology, so in literary theory. You won’t be able to find too many writers in the TLS these days willing to subscribe to the idea of encounters with “the great I AM” as a reasonable explanation for poetic inspiration. Interestingly, however, you will find scientists who have made use of occult paraphernalia as a means both of treating the mentally ill and of discovering links between the unconscious and creativity.
Nowadays, it seems to be almost a given that so-called ‘art therapy’ is one of the best, most humane and most productive ways of treating the psychologically disturbed. Less well known is the use of the common medium’s trick of ‘automatic writing’ as a means of facilitating that treatment. However, during the first few decades of the 20th century, it was relatively commonplace; Dr Anita Mühl, a psychiatrist at the St Elizabeth Hospital in Washington, published a book entitled Automatic Writing about the phenomenon in 1930. In it, she detailed how, by placing the writing arm of her patients in a sling above a table so that the pencils they held just about touched the writing pad, she simulated the use of the planchette, that automatic writing tool so beloved of spiritualists. Much of the material produced by Mühl’s patients in this way was artistic in nature – whether short stories, drawings or musical compositions. Frequently, poems were written, often with a fairytale-like theme, as seen in this simple example:
eats little girls
on the gate post
lives up on the
gate post all in the dark
he jumps out at me 
Needless to say, Mühl didn’t literally believe that discarnate spirits were responsible for such efforts. Rather, psychological explanations were given, centring around such notions as the ‘latent creativity’ of the human brain. No longer were supernatural accounts being produced to explain the phenomenon of human creativity – rather, psychological ones were coming to the fore.
THE AMAZING BICAMERAL MAN
Perhaps the most interesting and influential of these reconfigurations of the anima mundi as an internal, psychological space to be found within the confines of the physical brain was that of Julian Jaynes in his well-known 1976 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (FT163:45). Basically, Jaynes’s bizarre but compelling thesis was that, up until relatively recently in human history, mankind did not have the power of conscious, rational thought. Instead, he was ‘told’ what to do – how to act and react to the events and situations he found himself in – by various auditory and visual hallucinations, which he then dignified with the name of ‘gods’. One piece of evidence Jaynes used for this idea was taken from Homer’s epic poem The Iliad, wherein men are consistently depicted not as actual conscious actors, but as the mere playthings of the gods, who decide their actions for them; when, for instance, the Greek king Agamemnon speaks of how he robbed Achilles of his mistress to take her for himself, he talks not of his own actions, but those of Zeus, who caused Atë, the god of war and discord, to descend upon him and make him do such a thing.
But how did these ‘gods’ (characterised by Jaynes as being nothing more than “organisations of the central nervous system”)  speak to men?
Why, in poetic verse, of course! According to Jaynes: “The function of metre in poetry is to drive the electrical activity of the brain” and, thus, to make people susceptible to performing the will of their imaginary gods.  The implications of this statement, if true, are enormous. In order to best ensure their own survival in the harsh and violent world of pre- and early history, “most men at one time, throughout the day, were hearing poetry… composed and spoken within their own minds.” 
However, as bicamerality – the idea that early man was, essentially, divided into two minds, one the semi-conscious ‘self’, the other the apparently independent ‘god-voice’ dwelling within the left-hand side of the brain – began to die out, for various reasons, this style of rhythmical speech, or poetry, still retained, more than vestigially, its associations with the holy, and with orders from the gods. As Jaynes puts it, “poetry was the sound and tenor of authority. Poetry commanded where prose could only ask.”  Those who were still closer to the ancient state of bicamerality, then, those who still heard the versified voices of the gods – prophetesses, mediums and seers, in other words – retained their close associations with the holy. Many of the ancient Oracles, after all, gave their prophecies in apparently spontaneously produced hexameters.
Over the years, however, as bicamerality finally died out more or less totally, holy men and women had to resort to artificial means in order to induce contact with the gods – the whipping up to a bacchanalian frenzy of the mænads, for instance, or the extreme asceticism of certain sects. It has even been recently suggested that the prophetesses of the Oracle at Delphi ingested some kind of sulphurous or hydrocarbon volcanic gases from a fissure in their cave before uttering their divine communications – literally getting high in order to produce poetry (see FT127:21, 181:48–50). Ever since, associations between consciousness-altering substances and creativity have been a commonplace of our culture – witness the writings of Thomas de Quincy (see FT180:34–38), for instance, or the American Beat Poets of the 1950s and 60s (see FT251:42–47).
It has to be said that the very notion of bicamerality is a highly contentious one; few mainstream psychologists or academics would be willing to give the idea anything even approaching an endorsement. Nonetheless, purely as an idea, it holds much of merit; materialist in outlook as it may be, it still dignifies man in much the same way as did Coleridge’s Neoplatonist ideas of poetry being produced through the internal interaction of God and poet through the latter’s fleshly vessel. Both involve, after all, the intersection of the earthly and the infinite – only with rather different emphases. And neither, I would suggest, explain anything definitively about the true nature and origin of poetry – that, like the images it itself produces, shall forever remain shrouded in a haze of beautiful mystery.
So, the next time you ask someone who’s produced something wonderful just where it is that they get their ideas from, remember: the answer may well involve more than brainstorming sessions or notepads and pens left strategically on the bedside table before going to sleep at night.
N.B. None of the actual poems themselves are referenced here, as they are all easily accessible in any number of different editions.
1 Ted Hughes, in Sylvia Plath: Collected Poems, Faber & Faber, 1981, p276.
2 Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Major Works, Oxford World’s Classics, 2000, p313.
3 Stan Gooch: The Origins of Psychic Phenomena, Inner Traditions, 2007, p197.
4 [Ibid], p71.
5 [Ibid], p63.
6 Julian Jaynes: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Mariner Books, 2000, p74.
7 [Ibid], p75.
8 [Ibid], p361.
9 [Ibid], p363.
See also FT165:48 for the supernatural inspiration of WB Yeats, Jim Morrison and Judy Collins.
FONTE: Fortean Times