Inspiration and the Poetry of the Surface

Some thoughts about the power and potential in and of us all…

Poetry has been described as “to paint with language”. Why is this so?

Is it because with poetry language becomes capable of performing beyond its obvious function as communication, and by juxtaposing ideas and images to affect us below the surface of our thought?

To move us on a subconscious level?

To establish an almost sensory continuity, or topography that subsists beneath the poet’s words, that the reader’s aesthetic imagination is drawn across, and through?

To instil rhythms within our emotions that dance and keep pace with our conscious minds in ways that miraculously draw them to moments of spontaneous and lucid inspiration?

I do not think that inspiration is an accident, and I do not think that genius is an “act of god”, striking where it does, when it does, with no comprehensible pattern or rhythm. Nobody is “a genius” – that is an illusion, I think. Instead, some people meet up with genius along the way.  What on EARTH do I mean by that? I mean that moments of illumination are the result of longstanding habits of being and thought that render us capable of appreciating and translating the sublime when it occurs. And it is ALWAYS occurring.

The people we call a geniuses are like an antennae who pick up a subtle signal. They excel because they are sensitive: they can recognize what is already there. I believe that there is an everyday genius that all people can access during their lives, perhaps not as dramatic as the monumental works we usually associate with “the big guys”, but no less there. Genius is not out of our reach at all – it is here in the world we inhabit. It is evoked by our having been present for a journey.


The habits of inspiration are perhaps not the same thing as the “habits of successful people”. Many who achieved genius were also marginally functional in terms of very “basic” social survival skills. The rush of inspiration is disorienting. I am convinced, however, that habit is how it is done. More specifically, diverse habits.

Sir Isaac Newton.
Sir Isaac Newton.

Renaissance men like DaVinci, Newton, Leibniz, and more recent “geniuses” like Einstein, were all practitioners of numerous different exercises, from music to art to cryptography. All of these are journeys. What such a diversity of journeys afford us is a built-in way of “switching” interpretations of a given situation between two or three frames of reference within the mind of the experiencer. In other words, these frames of reference themselves are like an inner committee of diverse visionaries who, after a process of rumination, are able to achieve a synthesis of understanding. The moment is passed through multiple languages – of art, of music, of math, of history, etc. – and, given final expression in light of so many opposing points of view, brought together. The hybridity of immersive journeys.

This brings inspiration. The tension is high: if the multitude of perspectives within a single mind cannot be reconciled, then despair, madness, confusion and suicide are all possible outcomes. There is something alchemical to the discovery of an inspiration in the moment that can be aided by a number of habits of being. Certain approaches or manners help to co-ordinate and enable the chains of subconscious contemplation which might take a decade, or two or three, to bear their fruit. These are the habits of integration. Other habits are dis-integrating and might inhibit these processes.

In particular I am thinking about plane travel. To be sure, it is wonderful sometimes to fly, to see the clouds from above, or to catch a bird’s eye view of a landscape as one passes over it, but becoming addicted to flying gives us an experience of locale which is out of context. These journeys pick and choose places of beauty and majesty, but they show them to us as disconnected samples. They do not truly teach us the poetry of the surface. They do not habituate the landscape into our souls. The surface of experience has a continuity that integrates, I believe.

Rhythms of the landscape

Just as poetry habituates us to rhythms which will eventually, over a long time, bloom into vision of the sublime, surface journeys – the poetry of travel – teach our deep selves the rhythms and the poetry of geography, landscape, and distance. We learn to be patient and to absorb.

Vancouver's English Bay, via Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-2.0].
Vancouver’s English Bay, via Wikimedia Commons [CC-BY-2.0].
Surface travel is like poetry, and like painting. When we travel over a landscape by land, we visit that space, not in point-form – like when we fly from city to city – but in brushstrokes, or broad, continuous swaths of immersive, often unconscious meditation, which nevertheless give us an intrinsic sense of how the land becomes, how it shifts gradually (and sometimes dramatically) from place to place. Think of a flight from Toronto to Vancouver. To be sure, one would be immediately struck by the beauty of the mountains upon arriving, but that beauty would come instantly, as if one has put on a disc of Beethoven’s Ninth, and then immediately skipped to “the Ode to Joy”.

On the other hand, surface travel is all about the build. Imagine that same trip, only by car. Five solid days of driving would take you up through the rocky tumult of Northern Ontario – in the fall, an expanse of misty pink hills – across the open, zen-like ocean of the Prairies and toward the foothills of Alberta. Here the rhythms start to pick up, and as the Rockies loom in front of you the build-up is sublime. Vancouver, with it’s majestic mountains, becomes a climax, slowly building and then finally breaking into glory as you find yourself imperceptibly and by degrees in the midst of its scenic grandeur. It is the lull, the absorption of the journey, that allows this inspiring climax to show itself, and in retrospect the entire journey is a form of immersive poetry.

Meanderings of space and thought

The cadence of the journey itself never leaves you; it becomes a pattern drawn directly from the land that re-emerges in the moments after as the paradigm case for a certain kind of inspiration. Sure, there have been inspired people who have not taken such epic physical journeys; the German philosopher Immanuel Kant comes to mind, as does the French thinker Gilles Deleuze. And yet, I cannot help but think that both these men were travellers, though perhaps of a landscape of thought. They took their long, brush-stroke journeys through the thought of Hume, Spinoza, and others. They did not fly in and pick out a pertinent chapter, but were rather absorbed by the arguments of their forebears, absorbed and hypnotized by the poetry of their thought, and in such a way that they were able to compose new landscapes for other travellers. So it remains: inspiration comes from absorption into journeys – within or without, it does not seem to matter.

I had an absorbing experience along the old Highway 7 in Nova Scotia. The fog was thick, and the road was almost totally untravelled compared to the freeway from Halifax to Antigonish. It was on that journey that I learned about the Wishing Chair of Nacum Teuch.

I will tell that tale next time we meet. Thanks for reading.

Get our weekly newsletter for in-depth reporting and analysis delivered straight to your inbox. You can unsubscribe from the newsletter at any time. Have a question? Contact us or review our privacy policy for more information.


Sign up for our weekly Indygestion newsletter


Sign up for the Indygestion newsletter

Each Saturday, we'll deliver a recap of all our in-depth reporting and analysis from the week.

Our donors make it possible.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s premiere outlet for progressive ideas is only possible with your support. Will you join us?

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top