The Creative Process in Three Poetic Texts: Neruda, Ferlinghetti, Collins

|| Academic Paper |

This paper examines the creative elements that are traceable in three selected poems in an attempt to correlate or compare the various aspects of the creative process as reflected in each of the texts. The three poems examined here are Constantly Risking Absurdity by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Cat’s Dream by Pablo Neruda, and You, Reader by Billy Collins. In correlating the poets’ creative approaches and techniques, this writer hopes to synthesize, by way of reflection, the different highlights of the course including the relationships among content, form, and style. The paper also includes insights on the creative process from the poets themselves as gleaned from interviews and similar media. 

American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in 1919 and is best known for his collection of poems entitled A Coney Island of the Mind, which is selling at more than a million copies and has been translated into several languages. Ferlinghetti also paints and is a known activist for several causes such as peace and nuclear disarmament. His establishment of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in 1953 and its subsequent publication of works by Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg largely associated Ferlinghetti with the Beat Generation Movement, even though he has had a different set of aesthetic influences compared with most Beat Generation poets. The poem, Constantly Risking Absurdity is one of the lyrical poems in A Coney Island of the Mind. (Ferlinghetti, 1958).
Pablo Neruda was the nom de guerre and eventual legal name of Chilean poet and Nobel Prize laureate Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto. Widely considered among the greatest poets of the 20th century, Neruda was born in 1904 and was politically active in the socialist/communist movements, having strongly supported known communist figures such as Joseph Stalin, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara. Some of his works were tributes to these and other revolutionary figures. Neruda was active as a Chilean diplomat and was assigned to various places around the world, the experiences of which were reflected in his literary works. He also served as a member of the Chilean Senate in 1943 and helped install socialist candidate Salvador Allende as president in 1953. While poetically eloquent in expressing his political views, Pablo Neruda is also known—perhaps more so—for his ardently passionate love poems and highly insightful observations of everyday objects and events. (Cunningham)
Billy Collins is a multi-awarded American poet. Born in 1941, Collins is a Distinguished Professor at Lehman College and, for two terms, was Poet Laureate of the United States. He has sold over 200,000 copies of his works, testament to his appeal among general readers as an “accessible, warm, and humorous” poet. Hailed as the most popular American poet by the New York Times, Collins also received the biggest sum to date advanced by any publisher for a series of poetry books when Random House agreed to a hefty six figure deal. (The Poetry Foundation)
1. Constantly Risking Absurdity

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Constantly Risking Absurdity is a perfect artifact for sifting through the different discourses on the creative process. First, it is a lucid intimation of how the poet exactly views the process of writing poetry. Second, the form the poem assumes and the imageries it uses are also part of, or are, in themselves, the message on how versification [i.e., the creative process] should be accomplished.

The poem is in free verse and consists of thirty-three lines. Largely using similes and metaphors to highlight its meanings, the poem compares the task of writing poems to tightrope walking as accomplished by an acrobat. Through the poem, Ferlinghetti delivers a discourse on the poet’s role as an artist and the risks the poet must take to capture an aspect of Beauty and retell it in the poet’s medium, the manner of which always entails risking the poet’s credibility. 
As the poem illustrates, both the tightrope walker and the poet take tremendous risks to get something across: the tightrope walker needs to maintain a tenuous balance to get across the entire length of the rope and reach the other side. Certainly a breathtaking spectacle to the audience who understands that the tightrope walker is risking a fall—even death—in the performance of the tightrope walker’s role:

Constantly risking absurdity
and death
whenever he performs
above the heads
of his audience
the poet like an acrobat
climbs on rime
to a high wire of his own making
and balancing on eyebeams
above a sea of faces (Ferlinghetti, 1958, p. 30)

On the other hand, the poet needs to get the message [Truth and Beauty] across to the poet’s audience. To perform this creative process is to exert uncommon commitment and focus, in the process risking a fall from a still higher vantage point that the author should always attempt to achieve:

For he's the super realist
who must perforce perceive
taut truth
before the taking of each stance or step
in his supposed advance
toward that still higher perch
where Beauty stands and waits
with gravity
to start her death-defying leap (ibid. p. 30)

Consequently, the creative process also entails the craft-defining risk of being wrong in the appreciation (i.e., the artist’s personal understanding) and the abstraction (i.e., the artist’s chosen medium and method) of Truth and Beauty:

And he
a little charleychaplin man
who may or may not catch
her fair eternal form
spreadeagled in the empty air
of existence (ibid.  p.30)

Moreover, implicit in the poem is a third ultimately defining risk: that of being understood/misunderstood by the poet’s audience which has the potential of dealing a fatal blow to the poet’s credibility as an artist. This is the path any poet of note consciously avoids: that of absurdity.

2. Cat’s Dream
In Cat’s Dream Pablo Neruda exhibits his resolve as a poet to infuse the commonplace with a soul, or rather to discover the latent soul of ordinary things and affirm its essence back to a community which has lost much of its own essence. Cat’s Dream is a thirty-five line poem in four stanzas describing, in surprising detail, a sleeping cat. While the subject is simple enough, the imageries and techniques are characteristic of Neruda’s impassioned style. By beautifully describing the features of   cat, the poem was able to portray the essence of all slumbering cats: wind-up power made temporarily dormant by the act of sleeping.

After describing the cat in the first paragraph, the persona expressed desire to sleep as peacefully as the cat, without societal burdens, and with absolute freedom to do as the persona pleases:

I should like to sleep like a cat,
with all the fur of time,
with a tongue rough as flint,
with the dry sex of fire;
and after speaking to no one,
stretch myself over the world,
over roofs and landscapes,
with a passionate desire
to hunt the rats in my dreams. (PoemHunter)

At the poem’s conclusion, the persona implores the cat to take care of the dreams of the community the persona belongs to and presents a curious paradox: the persona’s community possesses a “slumbering prowess” but apparently lacks the “relentless heart” the cat possesses.

Sleep, sleep cat of the night,
with episcopal ceremony
and your stone-carved moustache.
Take care of all our dreams;
control the obscurity
of our slumbering prowess
with your relentless heart
and the great ruff of your tail. (PoemHunter)

Cat’s Dream exemplifies what Pablo Neruda described as “simple consciousness” during his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971. During the same occasion, Neruda publicly described how best he thinks a poet may fulfill his purpose:
“I have often maintained that the best poet is he who prepares our daily bread: the nearest baker who does not imagine himself to be a god. He does his majestic and unpretentious work of kneading the dough, consigning it to the oven, baking it in golden colours and handing us our daily bread as a duty of fellowship. And, if the poet succeeds in achieving this simple consciousness, this too will be transformed into an element in an immense activity, in a simple or complicated structure which constitutes the building of a community, the changing of the conditions which surround mankind, the handing over of mankind’s products: bread, truth, wine, dreams.”  (Neruda, 1971)

3. You, Reader
Critics and general readers commonly regard Billy Collins’ poetry as warm and easily accessible. These characteristics are markedly exhibited in You, Reader where the persona who is also the conscious creator of the poem speaks directly to its reader in a deceptively casual but profoundly meaningful way. 

In You, Reader, Collins imply the equivalence of the creative potential of the persona and the reader. He starts by stating the same sensory perceptions available to the persona and the reader and that the main difference is merely the promptness of the persona to record and translate the persona’s own observations of the mundane into the lyrical details their existence seem to demand.

I wonder how you are going to feel
when you find out
that I wrote this instead of you.

that it was I who got up early
to sit in the kitchen
and mention with a pen (The Poetry Archive)

The persona’s poetic subjects are common everyday stuff, something the reader can access easily as well:

the rain-soaked windows,
the ivy wallpaper,
and the goldfish circling in its bowl

before one of us happened
to notice the unlit candles
and the clock humming on the wall.

and I was only thinking
about the shakers of salt and pepper
that were standing side by side on a place mat. (ibid.)

Concluding the casual conversation, the persona employs a simile comparing the persona and the reader’s relationship with that of the salt and pepper shakers that have been together for quite a while and presumably, should have grown familiar with each other.

and I was only thinking
about the shakers of salt and pepper
that were standing side by side on a place mat.

I wondered if they had become friends
after all these years
or if they were still strangers to one another

like you and I
who manage to be known and unknown
to each other at the same time (ibid.)

The Creative Process in Verse Form
Evident in Collin’s creative technique is the use of the second person perspective, where the poem’s persona directly speaks to the reader. On top of using familiarly simple images that are easily apprehensible to most readers, the technique generates a comfortable common ground between speaker and listener, taking the relationship as close to a literary companionship as possible. Indeed in You, Reader, the setting and context of the narrative is so domestically common even across different cultures that the essence of what is being communicated is easily grasped.
However, while the poem’s narrative transitions seem remarkably seamless and logical, Collins himself admits that he lets his poems “unfold themselves” towards their own choice of logical conclusions. This startlingly free and unplanned creative process is easily demonstrated in most of Collin’s works where the resolution most often comes as a surprise to most readers, perhaps even to Collins himself. At the very least, Collin’s lyrical conclusions are far from what might be expected from the beginning lines and stanzas, if not outright twists of what would be the logically predictable conclusions.  

Compared with Collins, Neruda’s creative techniques are more formal and fiery. While Collins’ poems exhibit remarkable gentleness, Neruda’s reflect the passionate milieu wherein he chose to assume an active role, the elements of which—such as the struggles of socio-political liberation he personally experienced both as an observer and a direct participant—permeate much of his poetry. As Neruda himself clarified in his Nobel speech,
“I have often maintained that the best poet is he who prepares our daily bread: the nearest baker who does not imagine himself to be a god. He does his majestic and unpretentious work of kneading the dough, consigning it to the oven, baking it in golden colours and handing us our daily bread as a duty of fellowship.” (Neruda, 1971)

In the same speech, Neruda admitted that his own adopted approach towards the creation of art—particularly his poetry—has not been learned as a formal discipline but have evolved through his own empirical perceptions:

“I did not learn from books any recipe for writing a poem, and I, in my turn, will avoid giving any advice on mode or style which might give the new poets even a drop of supposed insight. When I am recounting in this speech something about past events, when reliving on this occasion a never-forgotten occurrence, in this place which is so different from what that was, it is because in the course of my life I have always found somewhere the necessary support, the formula which had been waiting for me not in order to be petrified in my words but in order to explain me to myself.” (ibid.)

In a similar vein, Collins prefers recounting his own personal experiences associated with the creative process over a strident formulation of which steps and in what order poets ought to take when attempting to create a poem:
“ Well the joy in writing poetry is being down on your hands and knees with the language.  You know, if someone carves swans and animals out of soap, that person loves soap.  And if you write, you love language.  So writing a poem is an opportunity to get as close to the language as pretty much you can get.”  (Collins)

And, as previously mentioned, Collins has no pre-set destination for any of the poems he has created, reveling in the lyrical surprises each creative journey offers from the first line of the poem to its unexpected and delightful conclusion:
“So one of the key pleasures is – and most poets would agree with this – is starting out not knowing where you’re going and finding a way to get there.  So the poem becomes not a whole expression of something you think or feel, but it becomes a journey through itself to an ending.  And that ending is unforeseeable.  And in fact, the ending is something that the poem is busy creating.  It’s almost as if the poem is the only way to access that particular ending.”  (Collins)  

In comparison with Neruda and Collins, Ferlinghetti does have a semblance of advice to poets on their role as channelers of Truth and Beauty. As highlighted in Constantly Risking Absurdity, Ferlinghetti believes that each attempt at creating poetry should have a purpose [re: communicating an aspect of Truth or Beauty that the poet fortunately have chanced upon] and that this purpose might be undertaken only by taking risks. The main risks as argued by the poem are absurdity and death, two things poets should guard against by performing their tricks perfectly. Poets are tasked to “perceive the taut truth” and to “climb a higher perch” in the pursuit of beauty. Personally apprehending both the right way and articulating the poet’s own understanding of the two is the inherent challenge in the creative process, the failure of which will spell the poet’s demise or absurdity:

and all without mistaking
any thing
for what it may not be (Ferlinghetti, 1958. P. 30)

  1. Collins, Billy. Interview: Do You Have a Creative Process? Big Think: Experts 
  2. Cunningham, John Herbert. Beyond Neruda: Linking Three of Latin America’s Best Poets. The Quarterly Conversation. <>
  3. Ferlinghetti, Lawrence (1958). A Coney Island of the Mind. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation
  4. Ghiselin, Brewster, ed. (1985) The Creative Process: A Symposium. University of California Press
  5. Neruda, Pablo (1971). Nobel Lecture: Towards the Splendid City.
  6. Online bio and works of Billy Collins. The Poetry Archive.
  7. Online bio of Billy Collins. The Poetry Foundation.
  8. Pablo Neruda Microsite. <>
  9. Sternberg, Robert J. (1999). Handbook of Creativity. Cambridge University Press