Is That a Lump, an Olive, or a Poem Stuck in Your Throat?

Robert Frost, 1941

Robert Frost, 1941

I found this dialogue in my current bedtime mystery, The Long Way Home by Louise Penny:

Clara asked Ruth: “How do your poems start out?”
“They start as a lump in the throat,” she said.
“Isn’t that normally just a cocktail olive lodged there?” Olivier asked.
“Once,” Ruth admitted. “Wrote quite a good poem before I coughed it up.”
“A poem begins as a lump in the throat?” Gamache asked Ruth. The elderly woman held his eyes for a moment before dropping them to her drink.

Somewhere in the far outback of my mind a bell dinged.

A quote? . . . Who said it? . . . Robert Frost?


Frost writes: “A poem . . . begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with.”

A poem does not begin in thought, Frost insists; it begins in emotion.

It’s like love. As you’re dressing for a first date, you don’t formulate the idea: “Tonight I’m going to fall in love.”

Later . . . unexpectedly . . . suddenly . . . as you’re looking into your date’s eyes, sipping wine, talking . . . you’re in love. And all you can say is, “Where did this splash of joy come from?”

That’s the way a poem is born, Frost maintains. A poem “begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life – not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but a momentary stay against confusion.”

  1. S. Thomas echoed Frost’s points. Writing to me on March 31, 1994, he said: “I . . . have passed the mornings in writing poetry. I don’t think it is of any significance. I have shot my bolt at last. Plenty of interesting ideas, but, as Mallarmé remarked, poetry is not made with ideas.”

In an earlier conversation, RS said that from time to time he would have, not a thought, but an impulse. Perhaps see something, feel something, while he was out walking or birding; while he was reading. And there’d be a lump in his throat. An olive of frisson.

The first line of a poem would slip into his mind, he’d put it down, listen to the sounds of the words, the rhythm of their movements, and let the poem unfold, in some sense write itself, using the words, the metaphors, the general knowledge, he had gained across the years and stored up in his mind. When he was successful, his words created a lump in the reader’s throat.

“Poetry is that,” RS says, “which arrives at the intellect / by way of the heart.”

We “only know,” he tells us, “when [a poem] is about when it has drifted / by us, trailing a fragrance.”


Prose and poetry quoted in this post:

“Clara asked Ruth: “How do your poems start out?’ – Louise Penny, The Long Way Home (2014), 108-109.

“A poem . . . begins as a lump in the throat” – Letter of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer, January 1, 1916; The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume 1, 1886-1920 (2014), 410.

A poem “begins in delight” – “The Figure a Poem Makes” (1939), The Collected Prose of Robert Frost (2007), 132.

“Poetry is that” – Don’t ask me . . . ,” Residues (2002), 69.

“We only know” – “Poems in Flight,” Selected Poems (2004), 343.


6 thoughts on “Is That a Lump, an Olive, or a Poem Stuck in Your Throat?

    • I’ve been listening and re-listening to Jacqueline du Pre’s recording of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor. Surely Dvorak was surprised by joy when the muse nudged him to write it, even as I am surprised by joy as I listen to it.

  1. are you writing to me? – hubris leads me to say so – you got me this morning with this one. It’s going to be printed out and placed on my inspiration wall. The lump in the throat describes my experience when I paint. Writing, however, is another story. A punch in the gut describes more closely my process for my dissertation – something bothersome that will not go away and then forms into an idea – but then I suppose dissertations are not necessarily art. Nonetheless it is helpful to hear about the process from great writers – ok back in I go my friend!

    • A writer is surprised by joy when a reader feels as if she or he is being personally addressed by the writing. So thank you, Suzanne. The lump / olive is present in all creative activity: art, poetry, music . . . . Unfortunately, PhD programs seem to be designed to zap felicity of writing. But you can do it, girl – go get ’em!

    • The echo of an emotion-drenched event may open a spring from which poetry begins to flow. When this happens, both the writer and the reader receive a clarification of life, a thought never thought before – perhaps even a surge of ecstasy.

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