Dr. James Tipton reviews Mary Mackey’s new book Creativity: Where Poems Begin

Title: Creativity: Where Poems Begin
Author: Mary Mackey
Publisher: Marsh Hawk Press
Genre: Literary Creation: Poetry
Pages: 110
ISBN:  9781732614123 (paperback) 
Price:  $18.00
Publication Date: September 2022
Review of Creativity, by Mary Mackey

				          By James Tipton

Where is creativity before it becomes the created thing?  Mary Mackey’s new book, Creativity, explores the range of creativity itself:  its subtle, pre-language source, experiences and people that helped inspire or discover it, and the poet’s journey from the depths beyond thought to the forming of a concrete, original image.  People may think of art as its finished product—as, say, a beautiful sculpture.  But what they don’t see are the chips of marble on the artist’s floor: Mackey shows us all the scattered chips and their usefulness for her.
She defines in her introduction the process of creativity as:  “…the movement of an adult mind back to the radical innocence and vision of the very young child who sees, not only the reality we all share, but all those unnamed, unclassified parts of reality we learn to overlook as we grow older. “

Mackey consistently returns to the notion that the source of creativity is beyond categories.  One has to go beyond the boundaries of the rational mind to find creativity waiting, like a jaguar beyond the flicker of firelight.  She starts us with her visions and sensations as a child who can be “conscious and unconscious at the same time…float in infinity.”  That child lives in the pre-verbal source of creativity.  Adults talk her ”into reality” but at the price of abandoning “all that exists outside its walls.”  She enters “the world of time, the world of words.”
Creativity takes us on her journey from the source of creativity to its manifestation as poems and her first novel, and back to the source, which she must rediscover after the rational mind has chased it out of her.

	As a child in school, math, with its abstractions, makes her mind ”blank out.”  But geometry, dealing with “solid, palpable things: shapes, forms, positions and angles” is a different thing.  It’s a process of seeing the world in a specific, minute manner, which leads her to poetry.  It’s all about the looking, noticing what’s there, the microcosms that surround us, as in her childhood perspective: 
“…the world outside my window is on fire with autumn, and the leaves are blowing like sparks, torn off the trees by a wind that lifts them up and thrusts them toward the earth in wave after wave so the air seems filled with falling embers.”

Her art of noticing continues: “I study one leaf closely, following its flight.  I study another leaf immediately next to it.”  This close observation leads to a unity of subject and object, of seer and seen: “I feel a thrill of recognition, as if this room has joined the whirling world outside the window.  As if both are for a single moment the same.”  One could see this as another interpretation of Keats’s ”negative capability,” in which the subject is negated and becomes the object, but it’s more than that.  It’s about a fundamental interconnection, the discovery of which emerges as poetry: “I want to sing the words in my head, the words that will go outside and merge with the leaves, and then return to me so I can put them down on paper.”

	The structure of Mackey’s book itself is one of integration of rational language and vivid, intuitive imagery: she starts and ends each chapter with a poem that conveys in verse the essence of the chapter.  The poems are carefully chosen as microcosms that bring the chapter to the reader on another, more subtle level.  

	Mackey traces in each chapter a source of inspiration for her, whether pleasant or unpleasant, such as the ecstatic visions of the high fevers, the wildness of the jungle, and the challenges of being a feminist in a non-feminist world.  Each of these experiences is boundary-breaking, taking her beyond what she perceived before as the world.  And going beyond boundaries takes us to the major journey of the narrator: to discover and rediscover the pre-language source of the poem itself.  The book’s narration brings us her story in the present tense: it all unfolds now for her in reflection and for the reader in a style of presentational immediacy.

	One experience separates her from the source of creativity, and that is, ironically, the path of the scholar.  The Harvard senior thesis, the doctoral dissertation, the articles on literary criticism: even though they take her deeply into her field they take her out of the pre-verbal range of poetry: “my rational mind seems to have taken over at the expense of instinct, intuition, and ambiguity.”  Since the act of creativity, and not logical, analytical, scholarly thinking is the deeper truth of her being, this lack of being able to write poetry brings her a sense of “disconnection, a dull ache, a background grief.”  She asserts early in the book that “poetry continues after logic ends.”  That is why she felt drawn to the worlds of the high fevers, why she loves the jungle: “In the jungle I will fall in love with wildness, and this love for wild things will make me into a poet.”  The jungle frees her from the restrictive and relentless logic of the scholar.

	So the last third of the book takes us to her rediscovery of the poetic source within her.  And to do this she must abandon also the voices of other writers as well as her own scholarly voice.  In the dark night of the soul, which, for her, was the dead-ends of her life throughout 1971, she “wrote and wrote, and the words flowed so easily it seemed as if they were being dictated by a voice apart from me, a voice somewhere deep in my brain that finally knew what poetry was.”  

The last twenty pages of this little, but powerful book, bring us to the realization of jaguars.  Mackey reflects: Jaguars are the keys that unlock the dream work for the shamans…or maybe it’s not a messenger I need, but some sort of technique that will lead me into those parts of my brain that have been inaccessible since I learned to speak.  She eventually succeeds in this endeavor to be both “at a desk in a room in Berkeley, California, and…plunging ever deeper into a great ocean—boundless, infinite, and indescribable.” 

	Mackey simplifies and clarifies the source of poetry: it doesn’t involve the self-destruction of Rimbaud’s derangement of the senses, but a heightened awareness of the senses and of the intuition.  Near the end of the book she takes us to the inception of a poem that comes not from suffering or from chaos but from the silent, wordless depths of the mind:

"After a while, ideas and images come bubbling up from the depths.  A poem begins to form in my mind, not a complete poem, not a polished poem, but the seed of something. The poem does not come in words."

Read the book to find out more about where poems come from.  Mackey’s style is immensely lucid, readable, and engaging.  It is a trick to make the complex clear and the abstract concrete, but she does it. This book will be enlightening not just to anyone interested in the creative process, but also to creative writing students at all levels, discovering in themselves their own pre-language source.

-- James Tipton, PhD, Professor of English, College of Marin, and bestselling author of Annette Vallon, A Novel of the French Revolution (HarperCollins).

You can buy copies of Creativity at your local bookstore, on Amazon, or online from Small Press Distribution.