“How common is the lightning?” Gabrielle Bellot on Yeats, Walcott, and Finding Inspiration

The poet Derek Walcott (Getty Images)

For anyone who does creative work, Gabrielle Bellot‘s poetic piece at LitHub is a salve for the times when we’re plagued by artistic self-doubt. In relaying her own struggles and in deconstructing the work of poets W.B. Yeats and Derek Walcott, Bellot finds solace and inspiration in two other writers who at times sought to shed the “thick coats of impostors.”

Further reading: on how poetry can become prophylactic against stressful days and lonely times.

I have always been struck by “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” Not because it’s unusual for Yeats—it contains a bit of the mythic dreaminess many of his poems do, and its darkness is less apocalyptically tinted than some of his earlier pieces, like “The Second Coming”—but because it feels like such a twilight poem, a poem written when you feel a peculiar kind of lowness: frustrated in your writing but not so much that you cannot write at all, for you are, counterintuitively, inspired by your lack of inspiration, even if you think the work you produce is nothing. It’s a poem for those of us who feel we are no longer doing anything new, no longer accomplishing anything; we wear the thick coats of impostors and hate ourselves. We feel like, whether or not we’ve been published, we aren’t really writers. We’re failures.

I know the feeling well, the way the waves rock—or don’t—when your boat has drifted deep into the sargassum of self-doubt. I feel it often. When I tell friends this, sometimes they react with surprise, as I’ve had the fortune of my work being published in places I once never imagined I could see my name in. But being published doesn’t remove the feeling of failure. It’s an almost universal symptom of being a writer who isn’t ruled solely by their own arrogance that we will feel, at some point, like impostors, like one-trick ponies, like authors who will never amount to anything, or whose time has passed without us realizing how sacred and finite those clock-ticks were. I don’t pretend to feel quite what Yeats did, our ages and careers and lives so different, but I understand it, all the same.

Yet, ironically, I also read “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” as a kind of hopeful paean. It does not, after all, tell us to give up when we feel like we’ve lost the bit of dream our work comes from. Instead, it directs us, simply and powerfully, to go forth and find it again. Write, Yeats seems to suggest, even against death—the death of our inspiration, or the one who measures us, when our time is nearly up, without us knowing. It is a poem of death, yes—but not one of ending, but, instead, of new beginnings, painful and poignant as they may be.

But, with or without fame, we can never know if our work will live on. Perhaps it’s enough to sing, and keep singing, and hope, after our own night-shawl has closed around us, that someone else will hear it, and, hardest of all, remember it.

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