Walking over the Water

Walking over the Water. Outline of a Poetics. A Poetics. Borgen 1991. Cover: Vita Pedersen. Translation: David McDuff.

From: Walking over the Water. Outline of a Poetics 1991

Translated by David McDuff


My poetry comes into being between two poles: between hunger for life and fear of death, between excitement and thought, language and silence. The process is never the same, but – stretched quivering between extreme points – it contains a compelling necessity which seldom allows itself to be explained in any other way than: I can do nothing else, so I must do it.

Before the poem, a restlessness arises: spontaneous, unreflected and completely irrational phases, in which unknown energies are at work.
Sleepless nights and convulsions, momentary irritation, melancholy, aggression and other conflict-ridden states. Seldom is it a harmonious situation that releases the poem. Very important, before the restlessness, a position of waiting, and endless patience. This period may last a long time, but may also be decisive in its invisibility. Associated with the patience is a humility, which is perhaps the real beginning?

The phase of pre-articulation with its different stages may easily be undervalued or quite simply overlooked, but what happens here is crucial as to whether the amorphous state will be released in a poem.
Or: there are seldom poems without this phase, for what is involved is a degree of attention that is almost intolerable. It may be short or long, be scarcely perceptible, but it is here that there is an openness for anything that wants to find its way under an irritable layer of skin, here that sudden plunges under the surface of thought take place. Only afterwards does it become clear that the restlessness was the beginning of something new that was on its way.

The state of pre-articulation may have so strong a grip that when I do eventually write, I no longer have any sense that it is me. Like an anaesthesia, an intoxication. Someone else or someone else in me, something else or something else in me acts, while I look on.
Something that is more than me, or something that also exists in me, writes. What happens cannot be explained – thence the dizziness, but it is a question of reaching that point in the process where one forgets one’s own personality and is able to eliminate the private.

Inspired by French symbolism, Paul la Cour called this phenomenon depersonalisation: “In all great poetry there is an element of depersonalisation. It will not master you with individual oulfulness, but shine into you with impersonal spirit.” Inger Christensen has called the phenomenon derealisation. Both definitions aim at the same thing, they touch on a fundamental relation in all poetic creation: a generalisation of the subjective. In Mallarmé’s sense the depersonalisation is an aesthetic and metaphysical dimension in which the intellect leaves the space in the poem in order to let its own universe emerge – or as Rimbaud says of the poem’s subject:

Car Je est un autre. Si le cuivre
s´éveille clairon, il n´y a rien de sa faute. Cela
m´est évident: j´assiste à l´éclosion de ma
pensée: je la regarde, je l´écoute: je lance un
coup d´archet:la symphonie fait son
remuement dans les profondeurs, ou vient d´un
bond sur la scène.

And elsewhere:

C´est faux de dire: Je pense. On devrait dire: On me pense.

An attempt to take the direct route to the representative will only lead to vague poems. Only when the personal sets itself out over the private can the general emerge. It is not our emotions but the patterns we create from our emotions that are the essential thing, T.S. Eliot has pointed out.

I say: the angel dwells on the other side of subjectivity.

A man once said to me at an exhibition, where we were looking at paintings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: “Your body is so classical. When I look at these pictures, I can recognise it everywhere.” What he meant by this inverted declaration of love was: these studies of the body contain all human beings – or at least a half of mankind, all women. An artistic representation of the body is more than the individual body, it is an expression of the body’s essence.

The poem must correspondingly be more than the writing subject. It is the movement inwards that leads past the subjective and towards the universal, like Jung’s ideas about the collective unconscious. There exists an expectation of the general place that poetry must reach, but at the same time the poem exists by virtue of its specific character.
If it doesn’t smell of skin, what use is it?

There can never be talk of art unless the private material is worked over and even the darkest events or most shocking experiences transformed into light. The poem has no value of its own until I leave it. It must be able to be read independently of my individuality, which means that I must not be present as a private person. The partial must not oppress the universal. The poem only becomes real to the reader when it is possible for the reader to enter into a relationship with it.

The fact that I must never lock the poem does not mean that it is only valid if it has breadth: rather reach a few people and affect them deeply than many superficially. Universality and breadth are two qualitatively different categories.

Inspiration is an invasion of forces which reach far beyond what is otherwise known, both physically and mentally. I have seen violent, almost superhuman energies manifest themselves in people shortly before they died. Although they were ill and drained of strength, they were suddenly able to perform huge physical actions like moving otherwise immovable objects. In its own way inspiration is a correspondingly overwhelming physical transformation. It can also have certain points of equivalence with the most searing love, with sorrow or fear, but unlike these instances, the energy is channelled into something else.

Whether the forces that break forth arise from within or from outside cannot be ascertained. Sometimes the possession lasts a few seconds, at other times it is a question of long intervals. Something wants out, but why through me? And why do I want this something out? What I sometimes try to call on, does not come. Instead something unexpected turns up. The process always contains something miraculous. I am not an instrument for someone, but the place where this something can grow. In that state I may have the experience of the poems writing me.

In the moment of inspiration I don’t only see further and more clearly than usual, but also differently and LIGHT-awake. The state exposes how microscopically little is normally seen and perceived. But to open the mind in the dimension that belongs to inspiration can only be done for a short length of time.

Inspiration is the making visible of a wholeness, the romantics and their followers maintained. If not a wholeness, then at least a glimpsed connection between what otherwise appears separate, I would say. The romantics were able to set their sights on an already given order. The task today is for a moment to create order in chaos, for a wholeness is no longer obvious.

It is almost becoming a dogma that art shall arise from within. In certain cases, though, there is a freedom in allowing oneself to be bound by an idea that comes from outside. Someone wants something of me, and this expectation can sometimes take me further than I myself would have dared. There needs to be a dialectic involved: I must be able to light up the idea. Thus in one way to work outwards from inner stimuli…

I can take up a seeking stance or try to summon something forth, that is the same thing. What is involved is a sharpened attention, a special way of living, if inspiration is to be present. I write because I cannot do otherwise. Fatally or unwittingly I have spent my whole life preparing for this. I am seen. So there is no way back.

Either I go out of myself and let myself be swallowed up by the alien other, or I receive the alien other into myself. The first movement is most dominating in childhood and youth, the second in adult life. The ideal is to be able to do both, and what is involved is of course only a spiritual dimension. To devote oneself to the world is a precondition for being able to create a world. I receive the world into me at the same time as I exist in the world, and I produce a world at the same time as I exist in the midst of the world.

Without a beating heart, no poetry. Even the poems that express absence or emptiness are like the moment of falling in love, if not an
expression of meaning being given – then at least an attempt to keep meaninglessness away. For falling in love or the situation of writing
contain something within them…

The birth of the poem is one of the principal considerations in all talk of aesthetics. To write about how a poem announces itself is very
different from what happens when a poem emerges. In addition, every poem has its own subtle history, which complicates the whole thing
further. Only afterwards are the reflections interesting. Why did I do this and not that. Only by standing outside the process can it be
On the one hand the feeling can occur to me that it is as though everything – or at least something – was already there before the
poem, it was just that I did not see it. As though the words were simply waiting to be fetched forth. On the other hand it was me who
brought precisely these words together, mastered new images, which I understand only later, or never really know where they come from, for
that happens too. I have written poems I actually did not understand, or whose process of becoming visible remains unexplained: the feeling that something suddenly is given, which I alone must continue.

As the prelude to a sequence in Intetfang (Noembrace) I quote Rilke.
He has described the mastering as a process that begins before one is oneself aware of it, in the phase where sense impressions invade the mind, before the concentration takes place, when thoughts and formulations shoot forth:

Werk des Gesichts ist getan,

tue nun Herz-Werk

an den Bildern in dir, jenen gefangenen; denn du
überwältgtest sie: aber nun kennst du sie nicht.

These lines could be written about any poem at all I have written, since the angel broke its silence. For it was in my first book I discovered that poems need not refer directly to something already known. One of the trails in that first book consists of poems based on familiar material, but they are not interesting as poems, because the aesthetic manoeuvre here most often blocks new perception. The other trail is the one I subsequently followed and worked out from in many directions, i.e. the one in which each time a surprise is involved, the momentary tremblings of something not seen before: why did I suddenly write this, and where does it come from? It’s a question of trying to do more than one thinks possible, of throwing oneself out into the most challenging places. It is here that the frightening and overwhelming sense is found, the feeling that anything may happen, but it sometimes takes place in a region where one almost cannot bear to exist.

Who it is who whispers the words I don?t know, and what is whispered I also do not always know, only that the words announce themselves in
order to be put down. I write without asking. It is always too late to turn round. There is nothing to take hold of but what already exists
in myself, and what is thrown in over me in waves as I write.

The poet’s work is connected with an ability to lose himself, for a time to set himself outside society and history. The writing of poems
is a question of authenticity, of forgetting about other things and other people. And of being oneself, with all which that requires.

There are situations where the material for a moment takes power over the writer. And if the power is not won back, one goes insane. Or
worse: risks death.

The sensuous and the emotional are not sufficient to create a poem. At most a diary. It was only when I read Edgar Allan Poe that I realised
to what a degree sobriety and working methods are involved in the poetic principle. The fire must be met with cold.
In “The Philosophy of Composition” Poe comments on the birth of his great poem, “The raven”: “It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referrible either to accident or intuition – that the work proceeded, step by step, to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.”
These lines express a modernity which throws not a few myths overboard, as there are widespread prejudices that poems only come into being in intoxication, madness or headlong ecstasy. I know
especially the promising energy as a first step in the process, but self-forgetfulness and direct access must at some point be replaced by the highest degree of self-awareness.

Poe works by setting himself certain goals in advance. That is why there is so little mention in his writings of intuition. That he is right about what he says of the spontaneous, I doubt. I myself do not have an explanation for every device I have used. Though I like the idea that the cool overview constitutes an essential part of the process, not everything can be explained.

The birth of the poem is not only determined by expressive impulses, but also consists of contemplative states. This range of inspiration
is encapsulated by Emily Dickinson in the following image:

On my volcano grows the Grass

A meditative spot

Strictness and wildness are irreconcilable dimensions that must be reconciled in the process of writing.

The precondition for writing poems is to be able to lift oneself, to let the dream move one’s body. My best writing periods have always been accompanied by dreams of flying in countless variations. I can stay in the air for a long time and travel in this foreign element
quite without difficulty.

Writing is a longing for the present, a longing to be allowed to exist. It is a question of being captured, of daring to devote oneself to opposites. Pleasure and pain mingle with each other, and there is no more damming up the words that ineluctably flow out. Writing poems is above all being in the present tense, but also sensing other times and tenses simultaneously.

In periods when moon and stars are especially favourable, everything points to what is being written. The work on a book is not very
different from falling in love. I am sensitive and receptive in a different way. Apparently indifferent things cannot avoid being ascribed significance, and coincidences between the most remarkable phenomena arise. Words are – at least temporarily – in chaos. What before were chance events, now become signs.

In absorption things change. Most often it is a slow process, in which only small details alter. At other times there is an overwhelming vitality, and suddenly something shockingly new and unexpected is on the paper, something that from time to time anticipates what I will develop years later.

What forms the beginning of a poem often ends by being erased, either because the poem meanwhile grows and puts the beginning in the shade,
or perhaps because the starting point is too private. Only when the thing that gave occasion for the poem has been crossed out does something that is worth dealing with begin.

The process of the poem is among some of the seconds when I think:
that is why I am alive… On the other hand I also know the dread of beginning, because there are periods of writing when I must go in where it is dreadful.

The poem is put into the world and thereafter exists in principle accessible an infinite number of times, while I become aware of my own
mortality, but also of the fact that with each poem I am left with a remnant, that after the poem I am also confronted with something that
could not be written in. The poem stands and shines, each time I will be whirled into places from which I must drag myself empty and
exhausted back to the same darkness, the same unarticulated field.
Once the poem starts, there is only one thing to be done: give up everything else and throw oneself further into what is, without compromise, taking place. A process is begun. There is only one way it can go, and that is forward. Neither life nor poem nor society allow any braking.

It is a precondition to be able to endure long-lasting uncertainty and doubt, as a poem will never let itself be forced.

Creation is not to possess all the wisdom in the world, but to be able to be constantly born. “I am not born yet, but bearing I am redeemed,”
Sophus Claussen says.

Sometimes I cannot get into the receptive sphere where I can forget everything and the poem be given birth, where I form a shell around
myself and have peace. I may try from so many angles, but I will not succeed in finding the entrance to the room I know is there.

The process of the poem is a being alone with oneself.

The poem sometimes begins in a dream moment and all by itself, or when two words collide and at once set off a larger movement:

Between always and never

it is that things happen

in a breathless second

when one least expects it

the world changes.

Something that was not there before, and which contains a new being in itself, appears. Or the process may start almost imperceptibly with a sound, a rhythm, a musical motif, a fragment of something almost forgotten or a misreading. Even the experience of absence may set language in motion.

A modern physicist would say that there have always been atoms, that something has been given. Something is there, but whatever this something is, it can be extremely diffuse. There exists a material, an amorphous structure, which is brought via transformation to take on a number of forms, but most importantly: poems are not created from nothing. Something is. Just as at birth we already have nine months – impressions behind us.

The thing that was the original starting point of the poem, and that is often discarded, exists none the less as an invisible place and has its special function in the poem.

The creative process is about giving the nameless a name, about articulating the unarticulated, finding a way to the place where light is buried.

Poems occupy themselves with the impossible, writing down what is not spoken of. Contrary to Wittgenstein: “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen”. But it is precisely that barrier that poetry seeks to cross by writing out new universes. All that about which nothing final can be said, and which each time something is formulated reveals new unspoken aspects. Poems set words free, constantly move the limits of language, and yet are never able to say everything…

While the sketch for the poem is arising, I feel I have been put outside of time, although this phase has its beginning and its end.
The place is forgotten, as is my identity. A seeking condition, almost without gravity. Like a pure floating.

Stress is not infrequently considered a virtue, but stands in contrast to meditation or absorption. If I am absorbed by the outside world, all creation is made impossible, because in that case it is the world that acts with me. In the process of the poem precisely the opposite makes itself valid: it is I who am the acting one. A bombardment of impressions may be important at times, but in the phase of writing the direction goes from within to without.

The many revisions by hand and the elementary sensuous experience of moving pencil or pen over the paper are of inestimable importance, as are the subsequent fair copies, because they have the character of being finished, and therefore call for corrections and improvements in a different way from the first hasty sketches. A rationalisation of the process would not produce more good poems, at most a great many bad ones.

Between the individual sketches there may lie hours, days or weeks, sometimes months. One cannot bully a poem, or it locks up and will not obey. It is not the writing down that takes time, when a poem is involved. On the other hand, the intervals between the productive periods can be of long duration. But something happens during the time that the poem is resting. Or I am given new eyes to see with.

The material or the emotions may pile up, ideas and images grow out of proportion, the potential may assume dimensions which cannot possibly be of any benefit. There is nothing to be done except to overcome one’s resistance and carry on. Poems require will, a fact that perhaps conflicts with many an old myth, but the poem does not come into being with a wave of a magic wand. The will is one the most invisible things in a society, where it is always the finished result that counts, or the final product that is presented. But will, which is not to be confused with mechanical toil, apparently exists quite on a par with other instincts and should not be undervalued. Will and endurance may go very far to determining my fate, but they are not sufficient to create art with. At most these forces produce advanced partisan activity.

Lastly, the exertions must not be detectable in the finished work.
“It’s by diamonds like yours that I know the sweat they are silent about!” writes Per Højholt in “The Moon’s Gesture. A Sophus Claussen Identification”.

Everyone can experience inspiration, but few have the courage and discipline to go further. It is above all here that the artist stands out from others, who let happy ideas disappear in the instant they are born. It is the stubbornness that is enigmatic, like the will to life.
Where does the strength to continue come from?

At times when I am preoccupied with a poem, I cannot be the person I would like to be. I wound and offend, I demand the impossible, or do things I later regret. I can see it, but cannot act any otherwise. All my strength is moving in one direction: towards the poem. All my passion is gathered in one single point.

Perhaps the poem needs me?

“Meditation springwater” in The Bridge of Seconds speaks of two forces that are present at every birth, a gathering and a spreading. Creation and destruction are aspects of the same process, and so destruction is an important element in art. Nothing comes into being without something else at the same time being destroyed. Rejection and precision are deeply connected with each other.

There is a paradox in the feeling of being enriched after erasing something word by word that at one point one tried to persuade oneself was a poem. It is a happy experience to have written a good poem, but at least as happy to have avoided writing a bad one.

“Poetry can be defined as encounters with chance as their basic law”, Per Højholt writes in “Cezanne’s method”. The degree to which chance determines the collision can be discussed. Is an external compulsion involved, or is it an inner necessity? Is it I who grasp the chance or does chance draw attention to itself? It is sometimes difficult to determine where the borderline is between two such contradictory elements as wonder and chance. Our birth may, for example, be said to be determined by a very predictable encounter, but why that particular ovum and that particular semen cell and not one of the other millions of possible ones, and why that particular intercourse that day between just those two people… Does the poem come to me or do
I come to it, that is the question. Of course the process goes both ways, and whether as a writer I am fertilised by providence or chance does not matter. Holy ghost or ovum release – what does it matter, as long as a poem comes out of it…

Where does the poem open? It opens where the unknown starts. If I only write about familiar material, I limit myself and present an obstacle to all the things that could be written meanwhile. New perceptions must always be able to come up behind me, impulses that bring me to an unpredictable spot.

A poem must close. It has its own end built in to it, but must at the same time point beyond itself. It is only when the definitive move is made that the ending becomes visible. In what the definitive consists cannot be said, as each poem has its own move, which points towards closing.
While it is far from always possible to explain what started a poem, the decisive movement can as a rule be made clear during or immediately after the work. Later it is probably forgotten, but the fact remains that beginning and end must be in a supple relation to each other. A poem can be so short that it does not manage to develop, but can on the other hand run the risk of being so long that it loses precision or becomes diffuse.

A poem must stop in a convincing way, so that it can begin in the reader.

The title of a poem functions as a point of orientation. I don’t remember numbers, they don’t tell me anything. Number-blind, I stumble about in the dark. But a title is important, because the poem is recalled by it. On the other hand, titles should not signal too much.
Rather hints than titles which make the poem top-heavy. It is a relief when a title gives itself, for usually it causes the greatest difficulties. This is especially true of book titles, which ought to be a miniature of the whole work. The strange thing about book titles is that they talk together. The title I gave my first book has had direct consequences for the others. Like names in a group of brothers and sisters.

Visible or invisible poles exist in my poems, but it is the number three that is the magic one. It hides everywhere in compositions and in the books inner conversation.Springtide and White Fever constitute two poles, while The Bridge of Seconds became the third quantity, which could not have been thought of without the preceding ones. Seen like this the three works are related to one another as thesis – antithesis – synthesis. “Moving sculpture” in The Bridge of Seconds is a hidden poetics for the three books referred to here: King, queen and dauphin. The dauphin is an unexpected result, which again must mark off a new figure which lies outside the material that is given. A continuous dynamic praxis.

The figure three also plays on another motif. The poems don’t just articulate an I-you relation, a poet-reader relation; a third instance is present between the two.

In the poem the limits of the unsayable are investigated. That is not all that must be made visible, for when the mystery disappears, obviousness and the one dimensional begin. A poem’s mystery should not be exchanged for a hard shell of something unapproachable, nor with unnecessary mysticism or chronic emotionalism. The hermetic, which alone closes the poet in and keeps the reader out, is not desirable, but on one level poetry is always an oracle-like monologic discourse: the possible transformations of expression, the many layers and structures which demand repeated readings. A good poem has an inborn character that calls for movement and continually steers towards greater understanding.

Where art is concerned I do not doubt for a moment that fidelity is a necessity. It is not imposed on me. I choose it myself as the only valid way of relating to poetry. It is a precondition in all seeking for a true artistic language, it is the condition for creation that steps beyond itself. Fidelity is an openness that obliges, but also a risk, for with it I stake everything.

After the poem: a violent exhaustion, but also an inexpressible relief that this something has found its way out. A great happiness for a time… Or a hibernation-like state sets in, a physical condition in which all sense-impressions glance off or are neglected. If there was an element of something that growled like a beast of prey in the pre-articulation phase, now the beast claws its ear back again.

The condensed energy or quivering nervous state that exists before the words appear returns again some time after the poem. I quite certainly find myself in a place whose existence I could not possibly have had any idea about before the poem, but am again hurled into fear and darkness, once again alone with the greatest.

The insightful poet must be able to parody himself.

What decides if the poem is a successful poem? Time.

Pia Tafdrup
is a poet, writer and a member of The Danish Academy.

Honours include:

The Swedish Academy’s Nordic Prize 2006
The Soeren Gyldendal Award, 2005
The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize, 1999


© 2024 Pia Tafdrup