WestWard Quarterly, the Magazine of Family Reading Writer's Workbench

Doubt As a Tool in Writing Poetry

In Personal Knowledge, published in 1962, the Hungarian-British scientist-philosopher Michael Polanyi (1891-1976) discusses the role of doubt in a creative decision-making process. He writes:

We may speak of doubt in a very wide sense. A moment of hesitancy such as may be observed in the behaviour of any animal possessing a glimmer of intelligence, could be described as doubt. A marksman taking aim may be in doubt until he pulls the trigger. The renewed attempts of a poet to get a line right are filled with such hesitations. A measure of such tacit doubt is present in all articulate forms of intelligence within the act of assertion, throughout its many variants. (page 272)

As an illustration of how doubt contributes to the search for the right expression in a poem, Polanyi cites an example provided by English poet Stephen Spender (1909-1995) in The Making of a Poem (1955, pages 51-52). Spender was writing a poem in which he hoped to capture a vision of the sea stretched out below a cliff, reflecting the busy life of men and beasts on the land above. The underlying idea was that our brief life merges into eternity, as symbolized by the sea. Spender, however, left that thought unexpressed because he wanted his poetic image, alone, to convey the meaning to the reader.

Spender records the process by which some of the lines in his poem underwent a series of changes, as he attempted to clarify his picture of the waves of the sea — which had, for him, a musical association with the strings of a harp. His first attempt was this:

                The waves are wires
Burning as with the secret song of fires

Spender went on to try five other versions:

The day burns in the trembling wires
With a vast music golden in the eyes

The day glows on its trembling wires
Singing a golden music in the eyes

The day glows on its burning wires
Like waves of golden music to the eyes

Afternoon burns upon its wires
Lines of music dazzling the eyes

Afternoon gilds its tingling wires
To a visual silent music of the eyes

Spender’s final version, which turned out to be none of the above, was incorporated into the ending of his poem, as follows:

There are some days the happy ocean lies
Like an unfingered harp, below the land.
Afternoon gilds all the silent wires
Into a burning music of the eyes.
On mirroring paths between those fine-strung fires
The shore, laden with roses, horses, spires,
Wanders in water, imaged above ribbed sand.

Spender’s example is a clear illustration of how doubt is the poet’s useful tool in revising and refining his work. It would never do to dash our lines off thoughtlessly, with no doubt concerning their coherence or whether they truly succeed in conveying our intended image or thought. A poet, like every author, writes from a basic foundation of belief — whether it be an articulated belief of a spiritual nature or a less explicit, but still controlling, foundational concept of the meaning of the world. But when we write poetry, doubt about the appropriateness of what we have written is our friend as we strive toward the effective expression of our belief.

Happy Writing!
The Publisher

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