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November 08, 1968 - Image 5

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 1968-11-08

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DONALD HALL

The

I

Vatic

Voice

I WANT TO TALK about the first moment of the creative
,process, the excited flash of insight coming in the shape
of images, a rush of words before which one often feels
like a passive observer. This is not to talk about elaboration,
getting ,the words right, learning how to cross out the
wrong words, learning how to stimulate the secondary
(secondary in temporal terms) inspiration of revision. I am
talking in terms of poetry, but I think my terms apply to
other endeavors also.,
Premise: within every human being there is the vatic
voice. "Vates" was a Latin word for the inspired bard, the'
speaker of the word of a god. To most people the vatic voice
speaks only perhaps in dream, an'd only in unremembered
dream.The voice may shout messages into the sleeping ear,
but a guard at the Gate of Horn prevents the waking mind
from listening, remembering, interpreting. It is the vatic
voice (which is not necessarily able to write good poetry or
even passable grammar which rushes forth the words of
excited recognition, which supplies what we call inspira-
tion. And inspiration, a "breathing-into" from the Latin, is
incidentally, a perfectly expressive metaphor: "Not I, not I,
but the wind that blows through me!" as Lawrence says. Or
Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind." We are passive to the
vatic voice, as the cloud andtree are passive to the wind.
I make up the phrase, "the vatic voice," not because I
am especially in love with it-it sounds pretentious-but
because I am trying to avoid using words that have acquired
either more precise meanings or more precise affectations
of meaning, phrases like "the unconscious mind." Anyway,
the unconscious mind does not talk directly to las.
Two characteristics that distinguish: the vatic voice
from normal discourse are that it is always original and
that we feel passive to it. We are surprised by it, and hav-
ing uttered its words, we may not know what we mean.
We must find ways to let this voice speak. We want
to get loose. We want to regress in the service of the ego, we
want to become as children. We want to do this not only to
make poems or to invent a new theory of linguistics but
also because it feels good, because it is healthy and thera-
peutic, because it helps us to understand ourselves and to
be able to love other people. I think, I truly think, that
to clear the passageway to the inside of ourselves, to allow

thte vatic voice to speak through us, is the ultimate goal to
which men must address themselves. It is what to live for,
it is what to live by.
UST THIS month I have had an odd experience with a
student who is trying to write poems. I let him into a
writing class liking part of his work but not convinced of his
talent. The first poems he showed me were wordy, explan-
atory, sincere, and a bit dull.; Then I happened to tell the
whole class about an anecdote about Hart Crane, who
sometimes stimulated first drafts by listening to Ravel,
very loud, and about Gertrude Stein, who parked at Paris-
ian intersections with all the horns beeping. They were
using sound to clear away the tops of their minds.
A week later the student came to my office excited. He.
had been trying something. He had been listening to music,
earphones clapped to his head and volume turned way up,
and writing, "whatever came into my head." He had a series
of small fragments of astonishingly new and original imag-
ery. The lines weren't finished, the rhythm wasn't very
good, here and there was a cliche or a dead metaphor. But
there was astonishing originality in each poem: some
corner of new light, and what I can only call an extra-
ordinary original intelligence. I think that in his case the
apparatus of the ordinary intelligence had conspired to
make his old poems pedestrian. When he was able to remove
the top of his mind by this external stimulus of noise, the
vatic voice broke through. He still has a way to go to learn,
to make his imaginings into good poems, mut that is
another matter. .
Poetry is evidence of the vatic voice, but it is also
typically an exhortation toward the, vatic condition. Never
to hear this voice in remembered night dream, or in day
dream, or in moments of transport, is to be a lamentable
figure, a lamentable figure frequent on college campuses,
and in the executives suites of offices, and in factories.
Children all hear it. Children all hear it. This is a romantic
cliche, and it is an observable truth. There is another world
that lives in the air." Most bad Poetry -'that which is not
mere technical incompetence, technical competence can be
acquired - is a result of defective creative process, which
is a result of neurosis. This is, bad poetry is largely the
result of being a lamentable man.

Sometimes I have tried to keep in touch with this vatic
voice by sleeping a lot. Taking short naps can be a great
means of keeping the channel open. 'T'here is that wonder-
ful long, delicious slide - drift down the heavy air to the
bottom of sleep which you touch for only a moment and
then float up again more swiftly, through an incredible
world of images, sometimes in bright colors.'I would come
out of these fifteen or twenty minute naps, not with phrases
of poetry, but wholly refreshed with the experience of losing
control, and entering the world of apparent total freedom.
I would wake with great energy. On occasion, indeed, I
would remember phrases or scenes from dreams; either
night dreams, or nap dreams, or waking fantasy dreams,
and would take phrases or images directly into a poem.
That will happen, but it is not the only virtue of dream,
Dream is the spirit dying into the underworld and being
born again.
THERE IS ALSO the deliberate farming of daydreams. I
love to daydream. I hope that everybody does, and I even
expect so. There is a way in which you can daydream quite
loosely, but also observe yourself. You watch the strange
associations, the movements. These associations are fre-
quently trying to tell us something.,The association is al-
ways there for some reason. Listen. When you hum a tune,
remember the words that go with the tune and you will us-
ually hear some part of your mind commenting on another
part of your mind, or on some recent action.
There is something I want to call peripheral vision, and
I don't mean anything optical. If you talk about a dream
with an analyst, and there is an old battered table in the
dream that you casually mention, he may well say, "What
about this table? What did it look like?" Often these little
details are so important. When I am listening to something
passively speaking out of me, I don't attempt to choose
what is most important, I try to listen to all of it. I never
know what is going to be the most important message until
I have lived with it for a while. Very frequently, it seems to
be that something only just glimpsed, as it were out of the
corner of the eye, is the real subject matter. It is often the
association which at first-glance appears crazy, irrelevant,,
and useless, which ultimately leads to the understanding,
which ultimately tells what I did not know before, which is
the original observation. I don't know how to stimulate
peripheral vision. But one can train the mind to observe the
periphery rather than to ignore it. Consider: if your are
thinking about something, and you have one' really crazy,
totally irrelevant, nutty, useless, unimaginably silly associa-
tion, listen hard; it's the whole point, almost without a
doubt.
Mostly, when the vatic voice speaks through me, I have
not stimulated its appearance in any way, and I do not
know how to make it come. I know that it comes frequently
when I have been busy on other materials. This is par-
ticularly true lately. I think that the way I am living now,
poetry, and new ideas in general, are more apt to come out
of a busy schedule, as a kind of alternative to, relief from,
or even infidelity to more conventional duties. But I do not
mean to generalize and argue that this will b'e true ofall
people, or even true of 'me six months from now.
I do know that as you grow older you can learn better
how to listen to this voice inside yourself. You can learn
better not to dismiss it, you can learn not to be frightened
of it. You can learn to stay loose enough to let it keep
talking and yet attentive enough to remember and record
it. When the voice is silent one can only wait. One can only

DONALD HALL is a professor of English and a poet.

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