How poets write great poems.
The following essay is adapted from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.
Sometimes something wants to be said, sometimes a way of saying wants to be used.
—Paul Valéry, "Poésie et pensée abstraite," from Modern French Poets on Poetry.
By the age of 20, Ambroise-Paul Valéry (1871–1945) was already recognized as a promising poet, but he repudiated the ambition and stayed almost silent for a full two decades. He was 40 when he was persuaded to publish his early poems, a task he undertook only on the understanding that he would add a new, prefatory poem. This took him five years to write. Published separately in 1917, La Jeune Parque and Charmes worked to establish him as the most prominent French poet of his time. Even without publishing his private notebooks—some 287 volumes—Valéry still had a full 18 volumes of prose to give the world, and scattered among them are some of the best essays written in his time. With solid mathematical training to back up his humanist erudition, he could take almost anything for a subject, but he was especially good at writing about the arts: The essay on Leonardo and the little book on Degas are models of the genre.
The homage paid to Valéry by other writers is only fitting, because nobody could quite equal him at writing about the arts out of deep and unenvious love. If there is an objection to be made to Valéry, it is a milder version of the objection we make to Rilke: that the dedication to art verges on preciosity. Valéry, however, gives a better sense than Rilke of other artists than himself being fully alive. There was a generosity to him which his nation returned in kind, as if his capacity for appreciation were in itself a national treasure. Gen. de Gaulle came to his funeral.
The second part of the above quotation makes explicit a trade secret that most poets would prefer were kept under wraps. The English editor and anthologist Geoffrey Grigson once said, with typical acerbity, of "notebook poets," that he could always tell when a poet had been writing down phrases and saving them up for future use. Grigson's complaint is a good polemical point, but its epistemology is questionable: If the job was well done, how could he tell? In my own experience, a phrase will wait decades for a poem to form around it. There is a mystery, and an insoluble one, to how the smaller unit of inspiration sets off in search of the larger one that will incorporate it. Artists spend a lot of time waiting for that to happen: While they wait, they must trust to luck; and it is no wonder that some of them get very nervous, and fall into bad habits. Until now, what the nervous poet did in his notebook—changing a word, changing it back again—was available to the scholar. In the cyber age there will be no such archives of first and second thoughts, unless, as some strangely confident techno freaks assure us, nothing ever really gets deleted, and it is all still there somewhere. In which case, Valéry's idea will never cease to be a departure point for speculation.
Clive James, the author of numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, writes for the New York Times Book Review and The New Yorker. He lives in London.
Reprinted fromCultural Amnesia, by Clive James © 2007 by Clive James, with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company Inc. This material may not be reproduced, rewritten, or redistributed without the prior written permission of the publisher. Photograph of Ambroise-Paul Valéry by Bettmann/Corbis.