“The Vatic Voice: Waiting and Listening,” by Donald Hall

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“The Vatic Voice: Waiting and Listening,” by Donald Hall, appeared in the Fall 1969 issue of MQR. The essay later appeared in Breakfast Served Any Time All Day (University of Michigan Press, 2004).

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 — rather than talk about elaboration — getting the words right, learning how to cross out the wrong words, learning how to stimulate the secondary inspiration of revision. I am talking in terms of poetry, but I think my terms apply to other endeavors also.

A premise: within every human being there is the vatic voice. Vates was the Greek word for the inspired bard, speaking the words of a god. To most people, this voice speaks only in a dream, and only in unremembered dream. The voice may shout messages into the sleeping ear, but a guard at the horned gate prevents the waking mind from remembering, listening, 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 inspiration. And inspiration, a breathing-into, is 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 or the tree is passive to the wind.

Just this month I have had an odd experience with a student who is trying to write poems. I let him into the writing class liking part of his examples, but not convinced of his talent. The first poems he showed me were wordy, explanatory, sincere, and dull. Then I happened to tell the whole class an anecdote about Hart Crane, who sometimes stimulated first-crafts by listening to Ravel, very loud, and about Gertrude Stein, who wrote while parked at Parisian intersections with all the horns beeping. They were using sound to clear away the tops of their minds. A week later my student came to office hours 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 imagery. The lines weren’t finished, the rhythm wasn’t very good, here and there was a cliché or a dead metaphor. But there was astonishing originality in each poem; some corner of new light, and what I can only call an extraordinary 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, but that is another matter.

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, like “the unconscious mind.” Anyway, the unconscious mind does not talk directly to us.

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 we may very well, having uttered its words, 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 because it feels good, because it is healthy and therapeutic, 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 insides of ourselves, to allow the 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.

Poetry is evidence of the vatic speech, 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. 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. That is, bad poetry is largely the result of being a lamentable man.

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Image: Lichtenstein, Roy. “Yellow and Green Brushstrokes.” 1966. Oil and magna on canvas.  Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt.

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