Person from Porlock

A dream. An opium-induced haze. Either a dream or a drug helped or hindered Samuel Taylor Coleridge to realize his poem “Kubla Khan.” But a third spectre surely had a hand as well — the so-called person from Porlock. An unwelcome guest from the namesake village at the door stopped the poet mid-poem and the cadence of the poem’s music and message were never again picked up.

Coleridge himself says:

On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!

Mary Oliver talks about such interruptions to creative work in her latest book, a collection of essays entitled Upstream. I admire Ms Oliver and her work very much. Some argue she’s as regular and ordinary as the Old Farmer’s Almanac putting out poem collections every season, and that the work itself is less than challenging. I say pooh. I love her view of the world, and the sound of her voice heard through both prose and poetry. She’s like an old friend. Recently I was reading her essay in Upstream called “Of Power and Time,” which really struck me in its analysis of the creative life.

The creative life is not about avoiding the interruptions of life, so much, as it is an inner struggle of competiting responsibilities. Welcome life, she says, don’t shun it. Yes, the poet needs her solitude, her nature walks, her need to concentrate. And interruptions are not helpful. However, the focus is less about any persons at your door, but rather on the self within. “The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruptions from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work—who is thus responsible to the work.”

This working, concentrating artist is indeed often “absentminded, reckless, heedless of social customs,” (and doesn’t, in my case, answer doorbells or iPhone marimbas) but more importantly is a “person trudging through the wilderness of creation,” often of an inner landscape of the unknown, and as such requires fealty to self for “there is no other way work of artistic worth can be done.”

I’m with Mary. And I would invite her in for tea if she were to come knocking. But otherwise, I’m busy, please leave the Amazon box on the porch or a message at the sound of the beep.