Emerson on Creativity and Poetry
B. Gleed

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At the end of the American century, it is refreshing to look at the thoughts of the man who foresaw America’s emergence as a central force in World History and letters; a man who although now long dead, and an icon of Nineteenth century philosophy, deserves to be read and contemplated by American writers of every time and age. He defined the special intrinsic creativity which is the American voice, and he proclaimed its validity for himself and for all Americans. He is the man who said, “Our days of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draw to a close” Interestingly, he is not particularly well known for his own poetry, but his influence on Modern poetry is primary. The thoughts of Ralph Waldo Emerson inhabit the literature of the United States like those of no other American. He had an elemental effect on the way Americans saw themselves in relation to the Old World, and was the first to credit the writers, thinkers, and creators of the still young nation with the brilliance and value of their own creations. His was the first voice to value the American experience as an important expression of mankind in and of itself, declaring our intellectual independence from the Europeans that were our forebears. He told us that “The world is his who can see through its pretension.” The essential element is the unique way every individual views the world. As you develop your own creative voice and express yourself in words you should remember Emerson too.

While most people are aware of the influence he had on other writers like Henry David Thoreau, (Emerson gave Thoreau a job when no one else in Concord, Massachusetts would even speak to him), he was the central influence in the beginnings of modern American poetry. The poets who were contemporaries of Emerson all stand in relation to the simple eloquence of this man, by degrees of either acceptance or rejection of his concepts regarding the Oneness of all things, and the need to see all things clearly and in the new way of heightened consciousness and enhanced realization. They and the writers to follow created an American voice that did not fear to seek out the new truths of an original philosophy, or an unexplored condition of Man. You can’t write a poem without reacting in some way to his ideas, whether you are aware of this or not. He knew what made a poem a poem, and he is still the best thinker on the subject of free verse to emerge. His influence on Whitman alone should earn him a place as a central figure in American literature.

The embodiment of many of the ideals of Emerson, Walt Whitman would boldly step outside the confines of literary convention and embrace much of what Emerson had said about Man in “Nature” The poem “Song of Myself” is the perfect vehicle to see the ideas of Emerson and their influence on the poet. In this work Whitman explores his own spiritual awakening, as a child might, without the contaminations of the poetry that has gone before. He takes Emerson to heart and is unafraid of his own original thought, seeing value and beauty in the common existence of all. He uses the I voice not to speak for himself alone, but for all his contemporaries, and to us all even in these days, hoping to show the Oneness that exists in creation of which we and all things are a part. In particular, the essays called “The American Scholar,” a Harvard commencement address from 1837, “The Poet,” and “Nature” are three essays with which every writer should be familiar. The entirety of Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is an answer to that charge. From his opening lines Whitman declares his answer to the view that the order of things, and the conditions of the Universe are made by and for each individual by himself by embracing the thought whole heartedly and unashamedly:

    I celebrate and sing myself,
    And what I assume you shall assume,
    For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

    I loafe and invite my soul....

Whitman begins his monumental work with the declaration that this concerns no other place or time than right now. He boldly declares this to be a trip of discovery that has ramifications for himself and for his reader of a like but distinct kind. He declares all, “creeds and schools in abeyance” so that he may explore, “Nature without check with original energy” Can his acceptance of the idea put forth by Emerson in his essay be any more succinctly put or any more conclusively be stated?

Emerson would continue to tell us in his conclusions to “Nature” that “The world exists for you... What we are, that only we can see. All that Adam had, all that Caesar could, you have and can do... Yet line for line, point for point your dominion is as great as theirs, though without fine names. Build therefore your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions.” All things are possible with knowledge. Does not Whitman tell us the same thing?

Robert Frost is from a later generation, but Emerson is evident in his works as well. He displays some of the concepts of Emerson in his poem “Star in a Stone Boat.” For Frost it is more difficult to discern from nature whether things are rightly seen or not. The star fallen cold and fireless from the sky appears to the farmer as nothing more than an ordinary rock of this world, even though it is, in reality, though still part of this creation, something from outside this world:

    Never tell me that not one star of all
    That slip from heaven at night and softly fall
    Has been picked up with stones to build a wall

    Some laborer found one faded and stone-cold
    And saving that its weight suggested gold,
    And tugged it from his first too certain hold,

    He noticed nothing in it to remark
    He was not used to handling stars thrown dark
    And lifeless in an interrupted arc

The star is something fantastic, extraordinary, and not the least bit mundane except in that it has an unremarkable appearance. This hides its true nature from man, and so is a miracle that must be sought out. Emerson called the universal mark of wisdom to see the miraculous in the common. In this poem Frost says that wisdom may also come not from strictly seeing the miraculous in the common, but rather from admitting that miracles may always be out there and conducting yourself in a way to be open to their possibilities. In his poem the demands of the individual’s everyday life cause him to overlook his star because, as we have seen, he was not used to handling them. In this way Frost celebrates the miracle of possibility that is inherent in all common things. This is enough for Frost’s experience, if it is all there is:

    Such as it is, it promises the prize
    Of the one world complete in any size
    That I am like to compass, fool or wise.

The final comment of Emerson's relating to every poet is that, “Around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but that every end is a beginning.“ This is true for every poem ever written. Read Emerson and see if he doesn’t inform your poetry, and yourself as a writer and a human being.

Bill Gleed lives in New Hampshire. There he teaches writing at Franklin Pierce and New Hampshire Colleges on the back of the Master's Degree in English and writing poetry he earned at the University of New Hampshire. His poetry and fiction has appeared. He also wrote for a newspaper for a bit.

email Bill at:

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