Suddenness and the Composition of Poetic Thought

‘I believe many a great speaker to have been ignorant when he opened his mouth of what he was going to say.’ So poet and dramatist Heinrich von Kleist notes, in an 1806 fragment entitled On the Gradual Production of Thoughts whilst Speaking (2004). In that piece, Kleist recommends speaking your thoughts on a given topic—particularly where you feel a blockage—to other people, to find out what you actually think. His observations on thinking by speaking seem at once familiar and outlandish. Actually, they match what many poets have told me about the unpremeditated nature of poetic thinking, in the 30 interviews I have conducted with Anglophone poets over the last 22 years. As Don Paterson put it, “a poem is almost a documentary record of an epiphany that has taken place in the course of its own making” (qtd in Magee 2022). Though the tendency of recent scholarship has been to relegate such comments to the category of Romantic myth, they are in fact consonant with what cognitive and linguistic work has over the last half century revealed about the radically constrained nature of conscious attention, in its interactions with speech composition, memory and knowledge. For his part, linguist Wallace Chafe argues that a cognitive constraint on previewing the exact words we are about to think up and say effects our immediate grasp of whatever it is we know as well. For Chafe, the bulk of our thinking on whatever topic we are currently focussed on exists in a state of ‘semi-active awareness,’ i.e. a vague web of memories, emotions and opinions that feel at once present and just out of reach, prior to their chunk-by-chunk activation into so many loosely connected, short bursts of speech or thought (2009). Drawing upon poets’ published comments on composition, my ethnographic interviews and this linguistic material, my presentation suggests that far from exceptional in its workings, lineated verse platforms the fundamentally myopic, improvised and in-the-moment nature of speaking and thinking in general.

Paul Magee is Professor of Poetry at the University of Canberra, where he directs the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research (CCCR). He is an Honorary Professor with the HRC at ANU.
His scholarship addresses the philosophy, history, linguistics and ethnography of poetic composition; the relationship between art and knowledge; and new forms for facilitating the presentation of indigenous knowledge. Paul has published four books and has a fifth in press. Suddenness and the Composition of Poetic Thought (Rowman and Littlefield: 2022) is based on Paul's work as a Chief Investigator on the Australian Research Council (ARC) funded Discovery Project Understanding Creative Excellence: A Case Study in Poetry (2013-6), which involved interviews with 80 celebrated Anglophone poets as to their experiences of poetic composition and judgement. Stone Postcard (John Leonard Press: 2014), Paul’s second book of poems, was named in Australian Book Review as one of the books of the year for 2014, while Later Unearthed is forthcoming from Puncher and Wattmann in late 2024. Broadening the impact of this theoretical and creative work, Paul is part of the Story Ground team, which works with funding from the U.K. Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Global Challenges Relief Fund (GCRF) to investigate new ways of archiving creative conversation among indigenous communities in outback and coastal New South Wales.

Date & time

Tue 04 Jun 2024, 10.15–11.30am


Room E4.44 Baldessin Precinct Building


Professor Paul Magee, University of Canberra



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