Poetry, as one of the creative arts, has often addressed the topic of creativity. Where do ideas come from? What is inspiration? What is the relationship between originality and creativity? Below, we introduce ten of the very best poems about creativity and creation of various kinds – not just artistic or poetic creativity but other forms of ‘making’ too.
1. Sir Philip Sidney, ‘Loving in Truth’.
Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,—
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe …
Let’s begin this pick of creativity poems with a trio of sonnets from the Renaissance, penned by three of the most celebrated poets of the Elizabethan era. Sidney (1554-86) wrote one of the first great sonnet sequences in English, Astrophil and Stella, and this opening poem from the sequence sees him biting his pen and trying to create a poem to honour his beloved, the woman ‘Stella’.
Sidney – or his fictional alter ego, ‘Astrophil’ (‘star-lover’; ‘Stella’ means ‘star’) – acknowledges that he truly loves the woman he is to write about, and wants to convey that through the poetry he writes, so that his pain – in being transmuted into great verse – will please the woman he loves. This will have the knock-on effect of making her want to read on, and through reading on she will come to know how deeply he loves her, and when she realises this she will pity him, and thus he will win her ‘grace’ or attention and blessing.
2. Edmund Spenser, ‘One Day I Wrote Her Name upon the Strand’.
One day I wrote her name upon the strand,
But came the waves and washed it away:
Again I wrote it with a second hand,
But came the tide, and made my pains his prey …
Along with Sidney and Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-99) was one of the leading sonneteers of the Elizabethan era. This poem from Spenser’s 1595 sonnet sequence Amoretti, which he wrote for his second wife Elizabeth Boyle, tells us that he wrote his beloved’s name on the beach one day, but the waves came in and washed the name away. He wrote his beloved’s name out a second time, but again the tide came in and obliterated it, as if deliberately targeting the poet’s efforts (‘pains’) with its destructive waves. But there’s a twist: here we have another take on the popular Renaissance conceit that the poet’s sonnet will immortalise his beloved.
3. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 83.
I never saw that you did painting need,
And therefore to your fair no painting set;
I found, or thought I found, you did exceed
That barren tender of a poet’s debt …
Shakespeare’s sonnets are, of course, the most famous of the era – and perhaps the most famous sonnets in the world. And many of the poems addressed to the ‘Fair Youth’ are about creativity and artistic expression: the struggle of the artist to immortalise his beloved through art. In this example, Shakespeare uses ‘painting’ in its extended sense, implying that he believed the youth to be beautiful enough without needing to adorn or exaggerate his features when writing about them.
4. Elizabeth Bishop, ‘One Art’.
Bishop (1911-79) is now regarded as one of the great American poets of the twentieth century, although her reputation is still eclipsed by the confessional poets such as Sylvia Plath. ‘One Art’ considers losses and losings of all kinds, celebrating them as ‘art’: all loss, no matter how terrible and heart-breaking, can feed an artist’s creativity. The artful artifice of the villanelle form is here pressed into glorious service.
5. Dylan Thomas, ‘In My Craft or Sullen Art’.
This poem sees Thomas (1914-53) addressing that common question: why does a poet choose poetry as their vocation? Or does the calling choose them? What motivates a poet to devote their life to the creating of poetry?
The answer, in Thomas’ case, is romantic: the poet talks about labouring ‘by singing light’ not for money or out of ambition, but for the ‘common wages’ of the ‘secret heart’ of lovers down the ages.
6. John Ashbery, ‘The Painter’.
The hugely influential and popular American poet John Ashbery (1927-2017) gave us one of the finest poems about the art of creating a painting. In ‘The Painter’, he uses the difficult form of the sestina to describe a painter who depicts the sea in his paintings. Through utilising a half-dozen key words of the sestina (which stand in for the usual rhyme words), Ashbery brings together the buildings, the portrait, the painter’s brush, the canvas on which the portrait is painted, the idea of prayer, and the subject of the painting – with the painting itself being the subject of the poem.
7. Ted Hughes, ‘The Thought-Fox’.
This is probably Hughes’ greatest poem about poetic creativity, and it had its origins in his time as a student of English at Cambridge. He was losing his ability to write poetry because the practice of critically analysing poems by other writers was stifling his own creativity.
One night, while working on a literature assignment, Hughes was ‘visited’ by a fox which entreated him to stop analysing poems and start writing them. He did so, and this poem – which appeared in his first collection, The Hawk in the Rain (1957) – remains one of his best-known poems.
8. Sylvia Plath, ‘Words’.
As the poem’s title implies, ‘Words’ is a meditation on the very stuff of poetry, although it is neither wholly favourable nor wholly damning about the power of words. ‘Axes’, the opening word, immediately invites us to draw a link between title and opening line: words are axes, in that they are cutting, powerful, but also potentially deadly. After one has struck the wood of the tree or log with an axe, the wood ‘rings’. Like that axe felling a tree or slicing a log, words echo, and the echoes travel away from the ‘center’ (the one who has spoken or written those ‘words’?), galloping away like horses.
This poem is on this list because it explores both the creative and destructive power of words, which can be used to cut (like those axes) as well as echo down the ages.
9. Carol Ann Duffy, ‘The Love Poem’.
This poem appeared in Duffy’s 2005 volume Rapture, and is a poem about the difficulty of writing a love poem. Duffy explores this difficulty – the notion that ‘everything has already been said by everybody else’ – by quoting snippets from famous love poems from ages past, such as those by John Donne, William Shakespeare, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
‘The Love Poem’ shows that Duffy is aware of the rich tradition of love-poem sequences in English literature: it is a poem that feels the weight of these former masters – Shakespeare, Sidney, Donne, Shelley, Barrett Browning – and finds it difficult to write a love poem that won’t sound like a bad pastiche or copy of these literary greats. ‘I love you’, as Jacques Derrida was fond of pointing out, is always a quotation.
10. Claudia Emerson, ‘Beginning Sculpture: The Subtractive Method’.
Emerson (1957-2014) was an American poet who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2005 collection Late Wife. In this poem, she describes the art of sculpture, referencing the famous line attributed to Michelangelo about subtracting bits from the block of marble until the sculpture emerges. Here, though, the setting is a class in which girls chisel away at blocks of salt.