Learning to Love the Vatic Voice

purplewallThere’s a blank. Then a curve or sharp end comes into view: a word or image that wasn’t there before. Where does it come from? Not fully out of my head (the bobbly part I use to dig myself into holes). Maybe the body? (“Write from yr stomach,” Liam Rector advised again and again.) Or somewhere less tangible and harder to name?

Poet and all-around prolific writer Donald Hall termed this creative spring the vatic voice, a capability he believed everyone had:

Vatic was the Greek word for the inspired bard, speaking the words of a god. To most people, this voice speaks only in dream, often in unremembered dream. … It is the vatic voice (which is not necessarily able to write good poetry, or even passable grammar) which rushes forth the words of excited recognition, and which supplies what we call inspiration. … I know that as you grow older you can learn better how to listen to this vatic voice. You can learn better not to dismiss it, you can learn not to be frightened of it. You can learn to let it keep talking…” (1)

Hall’s advice for cultivating the vatic voice reminded me of what I was doing at the time in psychoanalysis, treatment I started because words had dried up. No, the world wouldn’t miss my unwritten poems. But clients wouldn’t pay for a blank page, and I would miss a roof over my head. I had things to say, all trapped under some psychical ice.

The vatic voice sounded something like free association, which is not as freewheeling and random as its perception in popular culture. Free association is a skill that takes time to learn through a shared process of speaking, listening, hearing and being heard. Instead of a transactional “fix me” therapeutic exchange, psychoanalysis teases an open-ended and uncertain dance with the as-yet unspeakable. It takes an attentive, curious, and creative analyst to make it possible, let alone make sense of it.

At the time I read Hall’s short and classic essay, I noted the echo to free association and then forgot about it. I was getting my words back. I was meeting client deadlines. I hacked away at poetry and other personal writing, unearthing texts of myself. I was listening better to myself, an ogre catching small birds and trying not to maul them.


Love crept in. The classic transference. I became an analytic cliché, but it gave new meaning to a favorite passage from Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text:

“To be with the one I love and to think of something else: this is how I have my best ideas, how I best invent what is necessary to my work.” (2)

This wasn’t love as subject or object, possessed or possessor. Rather a sort of air that makes a certain relaxed attentiveness possible, an environment necessary for words—on the page (for Barthes) and before the page (for me). Barthes describes the most pleasurable text as one that:

“…manages to make itself heard indirectly: if, reading it, I am led to look up often, to listen to something else. I am not necessarily captivated by the text of pleasure; it can be an act that is slight, complex, tenuous, almost scatterbrained: a sudden movement of the head like a bird who understands nothing of what we hear, who hears what we do not understand.”

As Barthes reads, Hall writes, and I stumbled through hours with my analyst. Each activity is a transit across a territory (book, page, space between two chairs) that mirrors the transit across an inner territory where we each linger to hear a true word.


A few months ago I came across an interview in which Hall explained the origin of his notion of the vatic voice. It was, in some measure, something he learned in psychoanalysis, a process that lasted seven years, up to three times a week:

“Coming into my doctor’s office, I learned how to tap instantly into the on-flowing current inside my head. That essential step took me about a year, but once you learn it you don’t lose it. I learned to listen for the vatic voice, to watch images running over the mindscreen, to give a telegraphic account of what I heard and saw. It was good for me as a creature and good for me as a poet.” (3)

He described the effect on his writing process:

“Today when I begin writing I’m aware: something that I don’t understand drives this engine. Why do I pick this scene or image? Within the action of kicking the leaves something was weighted, freighted, heavy with feeling—and because I kept writing, kept going back to the poem, eventually the under-feeling that unified the detail came forward in the poem. The process is discovering by revision, uncovering by persistence.”

photo 2Yes! I was excited and in some way relieved to see that Hall had elegantly translated his psychoanalytic work from the secluded hours of treatment into a concept that any creative could appreciate. It reminds me of what I so easily forget: that speaking and listening to myself is the creative work, whatever the result.


Now that my analysis has ended, I’m aware that the territory “between” is now a “between within.” This transition extends the conversation indefinitely, as Hall said:

“Even now I talk with my doctor every day of my life and he explains the sources of feeling—although he’s dead.”

My own psychoanalyst is, I’m grateful to report, very much alive. But there’s an hour on Wednesday that now feels dead. It is the black hole that recurs in my dreams—both the well of a more livable self and the eclipse of loss. The shape of what’s missing and where it might be found.

The open question remains: How well will I be able to stay with my vatic voice? Who is listening? Am I listening? Judith Butler writes,

“The very ‘I’ is called into question by its relation to the one to whom I address myself. This relation to the Other does not precisely ruin my story or reduce me to speechlessness, but it does, invariably, clutter my speech with signs of its undoing. Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.” (4)

So I sit down to write, solitary but not alone, inviting the loose attentiveness that lets something more than mind and even body speak. Something more fragmented, rarely easy, and always incomplete.

* * *

1. Find “The Vatic Voice” in Breakfast Served Any Time All Day: Essays on Poetry New and Selected (University of Michigan Press 2004)

2. The Pleasure of the Text by Roland Barthes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1975)

3. Read the entire interview online: “Donald Hall, The Art of Poetry No. 43,” The Paris Review, Fall 1991, No. 120.

4. Undoing Gender by Judith Butler (Routledge 2004)

2 thoughts on “Learning to Love the Vatic Voice

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