Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Automatic Writing

There's this weird idea that if you just churn out words onto a page as fast as you think them, you'll come up with something more authentic than a work that has been considered and revised over time. That idea has been responsible for a deluge of crap poems.

Raymond Queneau wrote:

A very wrong idea that is going the rounds at the moment is the equivalence that has been established between inspiration, exploration of the subconscious, and liberation, between chance, automatism, and freedom.
Now this sort of inspiration, which consists in blindly obeying every impulse, is in fact slavery.
The classical author who wrote his tragedy observing a certain number of rules is freer than the poet who writes down whatever comes into his head and is slave to other rules of which he knows nothing.

I'm with Queneau on this.
I am always amazed that people who champion automatic writing seem to feel they are doing something radical and declare that those who write with a nod to tradition are reactionaries.
In fact, the opposite is true. A splurge of emotions with random linebreaks is more common than any other kind of poetry and it's all crap. None of it will be remembered, which is the only good thing to come of it.

Somebody suggested in a poetry website thread the other day that there was "no such thing as bad poetry" and that if I called anything bad, that was only my subjective opinion. Of course, it is my opinion that bad poetry exists, and it exists in massive quantity. And we must believe in it, if only so that we can call some other stuff good.

7 comments:

Heather O'Neill said...

Rob said:

>There's this weird idea that if you just churn out words onto a page as fast as you think them, you'll come up with something more authentic than a work that has been considered and revised over time. That idea has been responsible for a deluge of crap >poems.

I tend to agree with you. One possible exception might be to use automatic writing as a subconscious/semi-conscious brainstorming session to come up with a few kernels for future poems.

The process of automatic writing seems to be somewhat like losing your inhibitions when drinking alcohol. After writing a few lines your hand takes over as you hear the words in your mind. Mostly, the words mean nothing, but sometimes they do, or they spark a memory that you might want to write about.

Thinking the end product of automatic writing as being polished and perfect is almost laughable. (I don't even think most 'divinely inspired' works came packaged that way. Lead me to truth if I'm wrong. For some reason I have Coleridge in my head. But, I'm thinking automatic writing is different than substance-inhanced writing.)

A.W. is a tool, but shouldn't be taken for a finished, polished poem.

Heather O'Neill said...

enhanced,rather.

Rob Mackenzie said...

I can see benefits in automatic writing as an exercise or brainstormer. As long as the poet then closes the notebook and never shows it to anyone else.

So yes, I agree with you, Heather.

Coleridge may have written Kubla Khan while under the influence of laudanum, but I read somewhere that he took the drug for medical reasons, just as many other people did at the time. So he wasn't really abusing drugs in our modern sense.

But I bet he gave it a few revisions before showing it to anyone, even if he claimed otherwise.

Heather O'Neill said...

>But I bet he gave it a few revisions before showing it to anyone, even if he claimed otherwise.<

I think so, too.

I knew I'd read his words on the poem. He said he wrote the poem 'eagerly and instantly'. Maybe he did some tweaking here and there, maybe not. What mystery!

Here's the link:

http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/stc/Coleridge/poems/notes.html#KublaKhan

Hopefully, that works.

Heather O'Neill said...

Oops. I misread Coleridge's words. If I'd read more carefully I would have realized:

"that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!"

Sorry for cluttering.

Rob Mackenzie said...

Thanks for that link, Heather. It didn't work, but I got to it anyway. Interesting.

Anonymous said...

Yeats was a BIG fan of it. He believed that automatic writing channelled the spirits he believed came visiting. Major spiritualist, was William Butler Yeats.