In The Creative Compass: Writing Your Way from Inspiration to Publication by Dan Millman and Sierra Prasada, they tell a story about the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

In 1797, he woke from a dream and rushed to his desk to write the poem in his head which became his poem, Kubla Khan. It came to him as a whole in the dream and poured oto the paper – until a visitor’s interruption caused him to forget the remaining lines.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

That visitor has become known as “The Person from Porlock.” Of course, Coleridge’s dream was very likely to have been opium-induced, so the visitor may have been as much dream as real.

This visitor from Porlock (a village in the South West of England) prevented the poem from being completed according to its original 200–300 line because he forgot the other lines. He left it unpublished and kept it for private readings for his friends until 1816 when, on the prompting by George Gordon Byron, it was published.

The poem was inspired by the dreaming, the opium and also reading earlier in the evening a book describing Xanadu (the summer palace of the Mongol ruler and Emperor of China, Kublai Khan) and that interrupting visitor has come to mean something too.

“Person from Porlock” or just “Porlock” has become a literary allusion to unwanted intruders who disrupt inspired creativity.

Millman and Prasada view Porlock as the intrusion of critical judgment. The “critic” can be another person, but often it lives inside us. It can undermine inspiration, especially when it comes into play too early.

My friend and mentor, the poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan, sees that Porlock or critic as a crow. As she explains in Writing Poetry To Save Your Life: How To Find The Courage To Tell Your Stories:


The advice I give to emerging poets is that they have to get rid of the crow in their minds, the one that tells them everything that is wrong with them. The crow will try to stop them from descending to the deepest places inside of themselves, the place I call the cave, where all their memories and experiences, good and bad, reside. The cave is where they have to have the courage to go, if they are going to write, if they’re going to be honest enough to search for the stories they have to tell. It is in specificity that we find the universal, rather than the other way around. The mind does not control the poem. It is the old woman or old man who lives in our bellies, who helps us to be wise truth-tellers. We need to learn to trust that inner voice, and not to depend on the intellect to guide us.”

Whether you call it Porlock, crow or critic and if that voice is inside you or is an actual voice of someone nearby, you need to be able to defeat that voice when it prevents you from going deeper into the cave or from finishing the poem that came to you in a dream.

Advertisements