Interrogating the much-cherished concept of “poetic thinking,” this book focuses on what interview and draft materials reveal of how poets actually do think, when in the act of writing. The interviews confirm what findings from cognitive science and linguistics make clear: we rarely know exactly what words we are going to say, until we have said them. Suddenness and the Composition of Poetic Thought draws out the implications of a radically curtailed view of consciousness on how we understand the drafting and revision of lines of poetry, with implications for our theorisation of the composition of prose. Henrich von Kleist’s assertion that “it is not we, but a certain condition of ours which knows” emerges as central to this reassessment of the nature of the written word.
Employing an extensive archive of interview materials with major Anglophone poets, discussing how they think in the moments of composition, this book also provides a lucid account of the links between poetic composition and live performative thinking in the contexts of Romantic compositional practice and the early (pre)textual history of ancient Greek epic.
A transdisciplinary study at the crossroads of philosophy, cognitive psychology, literary studies, and linguistics, this book reconceptualizes the wellsprings of poetic thought and advances our understanding of thinking’s complex but vital link to improvised speech.
Paul Magee is associate professor of poetry at the University of Canberra. He is author of the ethnography From Here to Tierra del Fuego and two books of verse Cube Root of Book and Stone Postcard.
Introduction: On the Gradual Production of Thoughts Whilst Speaking
Part I Revising towards Spontaneity
1. We Do Not Know What We Are Going to Say until We Have Said It
2. “That’s the Illusion You’re Supposed to Get”
Part II Two Histories of Sudden Verse
4. Romantic Revision and Its Others
5. The Iliad and The Odyssey Were Rapidly Composed
6. The Desk as Stage
7. Oral Verse in Performance
Part III Writing Is Speaking
8. Not-Quite Speech
9. Writing as “Oral Dictated”
10. Consciousness as a Window of Three Seconds
Part IV Suddenness and Art
12. The Split in the Archive
13. “Great Goblets of Magnolialight”
About the Author
Magee’s book is hands-on, it is challenging and provoking, it’s both incomplete and exhaustively detailed. And it is a model of contemporary research in the field of Creative Writing – taking what it needs from linguistics, psychology, neuroscience, philosophy, ethnography, anthropology, close textual analysis, historical scholarship and lived experience. It sits alongside Nigel Krauth’s The Creative Writer’s Mind (Neurolinguistic Matters, 2022) as a recent tour de force in the field. This mix of interdisciplinary ingredients could produce a mish-mash, but in Magee’s hands, under the guidance of his developing argument and a growing hunch about writing poetry, the book holds together both as a thesis and as its own narrative of inquiry. You get the sense that Magee has read a lot more in each field that he ventures into than he can possibly mention.
[The] sign of a critically important book is often that it hurls one between poles of epiphanic agreement (finding a sudden elucidation of experiences familiar from one's own practice as a writer, for instance), and of profound disagreement. Magee's book placed me in such a position as reader: throughout it I found myself in a dynamic state of response, agreeing and disagreeing in nearly equal measure, with nearly equal strength of feeling. This is a provocative book in the best possible sense, because it demands that the reader (particularly the reader who is also a writer) reconsider their practice and its relation to thought, speech, and planning. Magee mounts a complex and interlocking argument that takes us on a journey across the contemporary moment; hurls us back to Ancient Greece; and alights in the territories of Romantic poetry ('Keats was not just fast, he was accurate'), cognitive literary criticism and meditations on the relations among speech, thought, and writing; and delivers us in the end to a place and time of transformation... Magee's arresting book offers us an intervention that invites return visits and further thinking at this time when human creativity, faced with machine-made texts, must demonstrate its radical singularity, its strangeness and wildness.