Art Creative Process music New poem by M. Bijman poem Poetry

Where does inspiration come from? (and a poem about music)

I recently completed a collection of compositions that share the theme of heat. It’s called Thermós, and, until today, I had not actually put this into words. But writing liner notes for an album makes you think about what it sounds like, and what it is about. I meant the music to express what I know and remember about remote places, arid, dry regions, and deserts – as opposed to the previous album which was about water. What I know about deserts and so on, comes from books and poems that I’ve read, and music, films, paintings, and photographs of places like the Sahara Desert, the Empty Quarter, the Gobi, the Kalahari, Tibet, Central Asia, etc., the history of those places, and the people who live there. I suppose amongst all that is a fair amount of clichés, legends, and stereotypes.

Talk about a mixed bag of ideas

When I was putting together the preproduction notes for the songs – the notes about what a piece consists of and how it was created – I realized that my memories and references are really wildly diverse. They include Peter O’Toole playing Lawrence of Arabia (T.E. Lawrence) as a very fey, slightly mad English officer; ENYA’s lyrics for her song Pilgrim, via Chilly Gonzales; the Metal/throat-singing Mongolian band The Hu; the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám; Hergé’s Tintin in Tibet, and even the poetry of the Afrikaans writer, D.J. Opperman, in his collection, Komas uit ‘n Bamboesstok (meaning “Comas from a Bamboo Stake” or “Bamboo Pole”).

This last, unlikely lead emerged from my memory like a tumbleweed rolling from behind a dune: One of the themes in Opperman’s collection is the travels through Central and East Asia of Marco Polo (1254 – 1324), and a 17th century Dutchman called Willem Bontekoe. After all these years, I still remember the feeling and images of those poems.

Medieval illustration of the travels of Marco Polo. Apparently, he was a bit of a fabulist, but recent studies have shown that much of what he wrote in his bookThe Travels of Marco Polo (also known as Book of the Marvels of the World and Il Milione, c. 1300), was true.
The translation by Edward Fitzgerald of “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” – probably the best known one and the version that’s most often quoted.

All of what’s in your Mister Potato Head Bin

Yes, I know, the stuff that gets stuck in one’s head is utterly weird. As Terry Pratchett wrote:

“Little particles of inspiration sleet through the universe all the time,
travelling through the densest matter in the same way
that a neutrino passes through a candyfloss haystack,
and most of them miss.”

Sourcery, by Terry Pratchett (1988)

When one of those little “particles” hits you, it can lead to a Eureka! moment of inspiration. I’d been carrying those odds and ends about exotic, far-flung and hot regions of the world in my mind for decades – part historical fact, part clichés and part movie lore. (DJ and producer Deadmau5 calls it your “Mister Potato Head Bin” – that place, mentally or physically, where you put all the ideas you might use down the road.)

Somehow they must’ve popped into my consciousness, because how else could I have ended up writing for instruments like the Mongolian morin khuur, the Persian/Iranian Santoor, the Turkish Saz Zither and Saz Lute, and of course the Arabic Oud – and a grand piano? Luckily, I discovered a term “World Fusion” which means music in which styles from different cultures and regions have been fused together. Because it is indeed, a fusion.

Relax and let the inspiration hit you

There are many studies and models about what creativity is, about the role that inspiration plays in the creation of new things, and about precisely how the creative process happens in your brain. A 2003 study states that:

“…the process of being inspired by is prompted by the emergence of creative ideas in consciousness, often during a moment of insight. Under optimal conditions (e.g., if the idea is actionable, and the person has the capacity for approach motivation), the process of being inspired by gives way to the process of being inspired to, which motivates action.”

*Source at the end of the post

There’s a lot more to this, but basically, you get the inspiration but then you have to do something with it, in other words, the perspiration part, ha-ha. Otherwise you just sit there and admire the thought and nothing comes of it.

The point is, that if you let yourself relax, forget about conventions and restrictions and other people’s expectations, the things in the Mr. Potato Head Bin in your mind will emerge, and you will create something that is uniquely yours and that expresses what you want to say. Afterwards, you get to spend weeks and months fixing it all up and torturing yourself about the quality of your product.

And what goes for music, goes for novels, too, of course.

Which led to a poem

When I finished the liner notes, I was so tired that I was just sitting in a daze in front of my computer and these words – Ancient Greek and Latin terms that I had used – came into my head, and me being me, I made a line with them, and then a rhyme, and so on. And that became a poem about the album:


Thermós and aqua, terra and solis –
all that is desert and none that give solace;
waves not of water but sand in an ocean
that flows in a swirl of Brownian motion;

whispers of voices as though the wind speaks,
echoes of music from faraway peaks,
dust swirls from tracks across arid chasms,
unreal horizons with verdant phantasms –

And the sun casts its rays like a god on a throne
with the power of thermós, aqua, terra and stone.

Photo by Walid Ahmad on

“Thermós”, (“θερμός”) in Ancient Greek means “warm” or “hot”. Aqua is latin for water, terra is Latin for earth and solis is Latin for the sun.

I have to say, writing this was much, much easier than writing the music, and much, much easier than writing lyrics.

Line by line, the images in the poem refer to the tracks or songs on the album. One track is about the desert called “The Empty Quarter”. Another is called “Meditation” which has chants in it like those that I imagine might come from a retreat in remote mountains. There is a track called “Silk Road”, about travellers in a caravan crossing dusty Central Asian plains the way Marco Polo did, and another called “Chimera” about being fooled by desert mirages. “Echoes of music” refers to a track called “Granada” which is in the style of Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz.

Uh-oh, it’s a Keatsian Ode!

As to the structure: it’s two quatrains and a couplet, which makes it a Keatsian Ode, if you want to fit it into a category. (“Keatsian” after the English poet, John Keats.) A Keatsian Ode has three verses, ten lines, and a rhyme scheme of: abab/cdec/de. Tah-dah! The process of turning inspiration into action and something in a specific form is the hard part of doing something creative.

This explains why poets can suffer from Odes, a form of exhaustion that is fatal. (Just kidding.)

“I’m afraid he’s got Odes, Mrs. Keats.”
Cartoon by Neil Bennett (“NB”) from The Best of Private Eye 1987 – 1989 – The Satiric Verses (1989).

*Study source

The scientific study of inspiration in the creative process: challenges and opportunities, Victoria C. Oleynick, Todd M. Thrash*, Michael C. LeFew, Emil G. Moldovan and Paul D. Kieffaber, Department of Psychology, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA, USA. Published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, June 25, 2014. Retrieved April 20, 2022

4 comments on “Where does inspiration come from? (and a poem about music)

  1. Jou gedig oor die kleure van koue bly my by – hier is die teenpool nou, ek hoop dit gaan ook saam met my reis.

  2. Eventually I did set that poem to music, Fran. I’ll write something about it one of these days. Groete van Marthe – hier waar dit nog sneeu so laat in die seisoen.

  3. Ek sien uit na daardie inskrywing. Hier is dit herfs, maar nie die uitbundige, veelkleurige herfs van die noorde nie.

  4. Dear Marthe,

    As a classical music critic, I am amazed by your polymathematical abilities, and as a fellow linguist I am only envious. Your blog is an incomparable cornucopia of musical and literary gifts (both yours and others’).

    I am writing to inform you of the upcoming publication of my debut novel, The Crooked Little Pieces, Volume 1: the first instalment of a 20th-century saga.

    I hope you pre-review the work as Seven Circumstances showcases your passion for poetically scribed literary fiction rich in thought-provoking themes, profound entanglements and cryptic characters: an apt description of this series.

    The Crooked Little Pieces centres on twin sisters Anneliese and Isabel: passion-pursuant heroines perturbed by pains, obsessions, (obviously each other) and themselves.

    Spanning the twentieth century’s five most volatile decades, the novel spies on the half-Dutch, half-German sisters’ frequently bewildering, occasionally unseemly exploits as they fall short of conformity in 1940s London’s stuffy stereotypical society, ceding often to rebellion.

    Paradox is at the crux of CLP. With every step its characters tilt their personas incrementally; inching toward their inadmissible pursuits and oddities. Self-recognition is discomforting – and on the way the twins cross both professional and legal lines, becoming inextricably entangled in experiments, inept investigations, liaisons and cover-ups set to awaken dizzying debates among my readers. The story is replete with mysteries and secrets slow to wash ashore. And underneath lies one recurrent duo of enigmas: that of Anneliese and Isabel themselves.

    The Crooked Little Pieces is a a myriad of primary and secondary plots that criss-cross over a rich tapestry of switching sentiments, subversive twists and tension-fuelling characters: some relatable, others opaque and many “crooked”.

    It is a television drama. Novelised.

    The work – which is released 25 May 2022 – is now available for Pre-Order on Amazon, Apple, Barnes and Noble and Kobo. More information can also be found on The Crepuscular Press’s website and its Goodreads page.

    I would be happy to send you the book as an EPUB, MOBI or PDF file or as a hardback or paperback once proofs become available. The book has additionally been posted on Edelweiss and Net Galley.

    There is no deadline for review.

    I hope this piques your interest.

    Kind regards,

    Sophia Lambton

    Sophia Lambton | Publisher-Creator | The Crepuscular Press

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