There’s a lot of white quartz in Chinaman Creek, and occasionally in that quartz you find small marvellous crystals.
It happens like this. You see an intense, bright light shining off in the distance. It may be a piece of glass, or the slick of morning dew on an ordinary rock, but you never know for sure. The trick to crystal-catching is that once you begin to walk towards the source of that glow the light disappears, and all you have left is your memory of the location to guide you. If something interrupts you as you walk ― if you shift your gaze elsewhere, or if you are suddenly interrupted by some stray thought in your head ― you end up losing the “thread” and you wind up finding nothing but gravel. But if you can hold on to your concentration to the very end, perhaps once out of every ten times, you catch a crystal, generally tiny and imperfectly formed, but of unique power and beauty.
Writing poetry is a bit like this.
The Chinese poet Yu Jian describes the process memorably in a set of notes he wrote back in the 1980s. “Obscurely, you get a kind of premonition that there is something out there, and so you unfold your language in its direction. In this process of approaching there is poetry. The premonition of an objective lasts a split-second, but the unfolding and the approaching must be, as far as it is possible, calm, objective, and even somewhat analytical with regard to the terrain.”
In these notes, it strikes a convincing balance between intuition (rhyme) and intellect (reason). It is intuition that detects that initial flash of inspiration, but it is calm rationality that “unfolds” that mini big bang in the most adequate and energetic of forms.
Yu even believes that it is possible to work on one’s mysterious intuitive capacities. One can enhance this ability by means of exertions, he insists, and he also implies that an openness to all the influences an individual is subject to in the world can also improve both the quality and the frequency of such momentary inspirations.
But before we get carried off into mysticism and the irrational, he also adds, to even up the balance, that “the sublime aspects of language come to the fore when language is used objectively”!
It’s certainly no recipe! Poetry can’t be cooked. But it does provide us with a way of reconciling that glaring opposition at the heart of poem-catching between reasoning and rhyming.