Clive's Lives

Paul Valéry

How poets write great poems.

The following essay is adapted from Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.

Sometimes something wants to be said, sometimes a way of saying wants to be used.
Paul Valéry, “Poésie et pensée abstraite,” from Modern French Poets on Poetry.

Ambroise-­Paul Valéry

­By the age of 20, Ambroise-­Paul Valéry (1871–1945) was already recognized as a promising poet, but he repudiated the ambition and stayed almost silent for a full two decades. He was 40 when he was persuaded to publish his early poems, a task he undertook only on the understanding that he would add a new, prefatory poem. This took him five years to write. Published separately in 1917, La Jeune Parque and Charmes worked to establish him as the most prominent French poet of his time. Even without publishing his private notebooks—some 287 volumes—Valéry still had a full 18 volumes of prose to give the world, and scattered among them are some of the best essays written in his time. With solid mathematical training to back up his humanist erudition, he could take almost anything for a subject, but he was especially good at writing about the arts: The essay on Leonardo and the little book on Degas are models of the genre.

The homage paid to Valéry by other writers is only fitting, because nobody could quite equal him at writing about the arts out of deep and unenvious love. If there is an objection to be made to Valéry, it is a milder version of the objection we make to Rilke: that the dedication to art verges on preciosity. Valéry, however, gives a better sense than Rilke of other artists than himself being fully alive. There was a generosity to him which his nation returned in kind, as if his capacity for appreciation were in itself a national treasure. Gen. de Gaulle came to his funeral.

The second part of the above quotation makes explicit a trade secret that most poets would prefer were kept under wraps. The English editor and anthologist Geoffrey Grigson once said, with typical acerbity, of “notebook poets,” that he could always tell when a poet had been writing down phrases and saving them up for future use. Grigson’s complaint is a good polemical point, but its epistemology is questionable: If the job was well done, how could he tell? In my own experience, a phrase will wait decades for a poem to form around it. There is a mystery, and an insoluble one, to how the smaller unit of inspiration sets off in search of the larger one that will incorporate it. Artists spend a lot of time waiting for that to happen: While they wait, they must trust to luck; and it is no wonder that some of them get very nervous, and fall into bad habits. Until now, what the nervous poet did in his notebook—changing a word, changing it back again—was available to the scholar. In the cyber age there will be no such archives of first and second thoughts, unless, as some strangely confident techno freaks assure us, nothing ever really gets deleted, and it is all still there somewhere. In which case, Valéry’s idea will never cease to be a departure point for speculation.

In a brief treatise called “Introduction à la poétique,” Valéry wrote, “With the artist, it happens—this is in the most favorable case—that his internal urge to produce gives him, all at once and without a break between them, the impulse, the immediate exterior aim and the technical means to reach it. Thus there is established, in general, a regime of execution … ” But trying to translate this is hopeless: un régime d’exécution sounds like a firing squad, when what he means is a climate of possibility, a feeling on the artist’s part that he knows what he wants to do and is already getting it done, simply by letting the general shape or tone of the project form unbidden in his head. I have heard poets call it “being inside the poem” and some of them even claim, plausibly, that it alters their rate of breathing. It can certainly alter their rate of smoking. In my own case, for what the news is worth, when a poem is completing itself—when the new ship on the slipway is fitting itself out, when every part insists on relating itself to every other part, and when nothing must be allowed to interrupt—I actually feel as if I am suffering from sunburn.

The virtue of Introduction à la poétique is that it makes you feel less absurd for having been so caught up. He gets at the soul of the subject through the body of the poet and generously gives succeeding generations the most valuable kind of encouragement, by saying that he had no real idea of how he did what he did as a poet. Better than that, he said that having no real idea of how to do it was the only way to do it. (“One conceives, for example,” Valéry says, “that a poet might legitimately fear altering his original virtues—his immediate power of composition—if he were to analyze them.”) It was a rationale for the irrational. He didn’t mean that just getting yourself into a vague state would produce a poem, in the same way that, in the Impressionist era, untalented painters thought that if they let their eyes go out of focus and painted what they saw, they would produce Impressionist paintings. But he did mean that the state of being creative would always feel beyond analysis. After that, I learned to trust in my sunburn, and took its absence as a sign that the poem was not yet finished after all, no matter how long I had worked on it.

Valéry’s famous assertion that a poem is never finished, only abandoned, is one I do not believe. Try and think of a way in which Shakespeare’s sonnet “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame” is not finished. Valéry could talk precious nonsense. He was a bit of a dandy, and sometimes he got his ­pouncet-­box too close to his nose, so that the aperçu came out as a refined sneeze. But on the whole he had the rare gift of talking concrete sense about the most complicated thing people do, and talking it as an insider. Later on his gift was born again in Philip Larkin, whose critical writings are based on the insistence that true poems must come from instinct, even if the conscious mind is fully engaged on their way to realization.

From all the testimony we have been given by the poets about themselves and about each other, the common theme that emerges is that everything else must be laid aside in the last phase, when the thing is integrating itself. This could be the reason women’s poetry is on the whole a comparatively recent event in history; it used to be very hard for women to lay everything else aside. Poets have traditionally been hard to live with, and the tradition will probably continue. At the very moment when a poet is working hardest in his head, he looks exactly as if he isn’t working at all. On the face of it, it’s the ideal moment for asking him to do something useful. The answer is unlikely to be diplomatic, and probably wasn’t, even from such a smooth operator as Valéry.