Challenge Your Writer’s Block with the Poetry of John Donne
Article and illustration by Laura van Tartwijk
There is no telling when your life stands to be thwarted by writer’s block. Cunning, baffling and completely debilitating, this inevitable and recurring phenomenon nestles comfortably in the minds of those who rely on their creativity the most.
For hundreds of years authors and artists have documented their tussles with creative shutdowns before the term “writer’s block” was officially coined in 1947 by psychoanalyst Edmund Bergler. As early as Ancient Greece, authors of epic poems invoked a Muse, a goddess of inspiration who they called upon for guidance on their creative journeys.
But what if your Muse abandons you? How do you go about finding her? Is she lost forever?
Arguably there is a way to solve a bad case of writer’s block, but it’s not a prescription-filled remedy, nor can we force it to fit into our time-sensitive schedules or condense it into a 10-step guide that works for all who follow it.
We find our streams of creativity in oddly specific corners that rarely overlap with those of others. It’s an individual journey that can take all but a day, but it is just as likely to sit on your shoulder for a six month period, and it may even drag you on a year-long crusade. Though we face and conquer this problem within our own minds, sharing the circumstances in which we do so may help another who is seeking solace as they stare at blank pieces of paper and approaching deadlines.
Thus, it is my pleasure to introduce—or reintroduce you—to the English poet John Donne who catapulted my creative drive and redirected my focus from written work to illustrations.
Donne’s treasure trove of exquisite exercises in language may serve as a powerful antidote to a creative brain that is out-of-order.
Donne was born a Catholic in 1572, back when the world was thought to be fixed and secure in its Aristotelian boundaries of scholasticism. By the time of his death in 1631, those beliefs had been bent beyond repair by the forced abandonment of his religion during the Protestant Reformation and the entire unearthing of society’s understanding of nature during the Scientific Revolution, a movement which was catapulted by the recognition of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory, which Donne discusses at length in An Anatomie of the World (which is a great starting point on your Donnean journey). In his opening lines he writes:
And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out,
The Sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
Well before the certainties of life that grounded Donne were stripped away from him, he was a Cambridge student and a daring love poet. Unafraid of controversy nor weary of spectacle, a young Donne was a tongue-in-cheek master of wit, writing with an eye to entertain his friends, often at the expense of his lovers.
In poems such as “The Flea,” “Lover’s Infiniteness,” “Aire and Angels,” and “Loves Alchymie,” he writes flamboyantly with coercive, lusty, and crafty conceits. In “The Comparison” these elements are combined, but take form as a descriptive concoction full to the brim with crudity. Though for some readers these poems, of which some could be classified as distasteful, are enough to dismiss Donne, this is where one must explore further. He is a crowd pleaser.
His love poetry was informed by an audience of young men with whom he was acquainted and desired to impress. And in the spirit of essentialism, consider the work you and I produced in our younger years—often we look back, perhaps read them once more, slightly chuckling before closing the box in which it belongs, for no one else to see. Donne’s rise to eminence didn’t allow him to pick and choose what the public was able to see, and he has expressed his embarrassment over his love poetry, which you will come to understand after reading it.
When Donne became a preacher, the subject matter of his writing shifted, catering to the religious and spiritual audience that looked at him for guidance. Though religious writing from the 1600s is often intertwined with ritualistic and cold seriousness, Donne delivered sermons that were absolutely sensational, spreading God’s message and drawing massive crowds at Paul’s Cross eager to watch his performances, complete with theatrical body language and tearful displays of emotion.
He wrote contemplative pieces that, to this day, will cover your skin in goosebumps. For a venture into his spiritual work, start by reading Deaths Duell; Of the Progresse of the Soul; Anatomy of the World; and/or Devotions On Emergent Occasions.
The extremity of all of his work, no matter the topic, displays his desire for the reader to feel something in the very particular way in which he imagined it. Donne’s treasure trove of exquisite exercises in language may serve as a powerful antidote to a creative brain that is out-of-order.
I invite you to venture into the Donnean realm, where the fantastical meets the metaphysical, death is conquered, two lovers’ souls merge on a Sunday, and a flea holds the key to intimacy.