Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Imagine That!

Before Words: How to Think Like A Poet

Writers think in mental images—and lumps in the throat.

Posted Jan 17, 2011

Who got it right? Do writers think in words, or do they craft in words what they think in sensory images and bodily feelings?

For many people, writers are obviously and predominantly verbal thinkers. In his book Creating Minds (Basic Books, 1993) Howard Gardner has us consider T. S. Eliot as the quintessential wordsmith. Gardner, like many academics, focuses on Eliot's astounding familiarity with English and other languages, his command of literary traditions, his success as poet, playwright and literary critic. Pick up almost any biography of Eliot and you find very similar accounts of his early and exceptional boyhood writing, his voracious appetite for philosophy as a young adult, and his uncanny ability to assimilate the expressive idioms of the poets he deeply admired. According to Peter Ackroyd, author of T. S. Eliot, A Life, "this ability to grow by the acquisition of another man's language is, of course, the sign of a highly refined literary sensibility, which finds meaning in words and words only." (2)

Elsewhere Eliot wrote that "the poet does many things upon instinct..." (4) In his own experience, which he did not think "peculiar to myself," vague emotional impulses first coalesced in a musical "feeling for syllable and rhythm." Such bodily feelings and sensations "...bring to birth the idea and the image..." which is "the germ of a poem." All this occurs, Eliot wrote in ‘The Music of Poetry,' "before it [the poem] reaches expression in words..." (5) In just such a manner, the poet found "words for the inarticulate, ... capture[d] those feelings which people can hardly even feel, because they have no words for them..." (6) As Eliot told Hall, "With a poem you can say, ‘I got my feeling into words for myself. I now have the equivalent in words for that much of what I have felt." (7)

For Eliot, the problematic search for words rather undercut any innate facility with language he may have had. In his early poetry especially, he confessed to "having more to say than one knew how to say, and having something one wanted to put into words and rhythm which one didn't have the command of words and rhythm to put in a way immediately apprehensible." (8) This made The Waste Land, as a case in point, difficult to read. But it did not necessarily make it a showcase of the verbal intellect.

In fact, Eliot insisted that his ideal audience "could neither read nor write" and that the ‘seasoned' reader "does not bother about understanding; not, at least, at first." (9) The first encounter with a poem should be entirely emotional and sensual - for the reader as it is for the writer. While working on The Waste Land, Eliot himself "wasn't even bothering whether I understood what I was saying." (10) Poetry is not a precise language, whose meaning may be pinned down in scholarly notes. Nor can a poem be fully "paraphrased" in prose. "The poet," Eliot concluded, "is occupied with frontiers of consciousness beyond which words fail, though meanings still exist." (11)

Other poets have said much the same about the emotional and sensual nature of their imagination. Robert Frost, for instance, observed that "a poem...begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a love sickness. It is never a thought to begin with." (12, underlining ours). Writers of fiction also agree that writing begins in a land without language. For Virginia Woolf, "a sight, an emotion creates this wave [a rhythm] in the mind ... then, as [the wave] breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it." (13)

Indeed, there is a paradox at the heart of writing, says Ursula LeGuin. "The artist deals with what cannot be said in words [...?] The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words." (14) Writers express themselves in words, they compose in words, but they don't imagine the feelings, the dramatic conflicts, the narratives they write about in the signs and symbols of formal vocabulary. As Snyder put it to Moyers, they don't reel out words and sentences while looking for their socks. They see, hear, smell, taste and feel, within the mind, in stunning moments of awareness, dreams, directed reveries, visions, and flashes of inspiration.

Gary Snyder, poet

Gary Snyder, poet

[Extract: Writing and the Exercise of Universal Creative Imagination. To be continued!]

© 2011 Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

(1) Bill Moyers, The Language of Life, A Festival of Poets (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 363.
(2) Peter Ackroyd, T.S. Eliot, A Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984), 34.
(3) Writers at Work, The Paris Review Interviews, 2nd series (New York: Viking Press, 1963), 97.
(4) Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 88.
(5) Selected Prose, 113-114.
(6) Eliot cited in Fei-Pai Lu, T.S. Eliot, The Dialectical Structure of His Theory of Poetry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), 134.
(7) Writers at Work, 104.
(8) Writers at Work, 105.
(9) Eliot cited in C. K. Stead, "The Poem and Its Substitutes," in C.B. Cox and Arnold P. Hinchliffe, eds., T.S. Eliot The Waste Land, A Casebook (London: Macmillan and Co., 1968), 222.
(10) Writers at Work, 105.
(11) Selected Prose, 111.
(12) George Plimpton, ed., The Writer's Chapbook (New York: Viking, 1989), 68.
(13) Woolf cited in Susan Dick, ed., To the Lighthouse, the original holograph draft (London: The Hogarth Press, 1983), preface.
(14) Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness (New York: Ace Books, 1976), introduction.
(15) Moyers, 363.