And yet, the energy of “Kubla Khan” was limited by an accident. Coleridge said that the poem came to him in a dream (literary critics believe opium was involved).
On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!
The “person from Porlock” has ever since figured, in literary history, as somewhere between the type of all importunate people who prevent academics from getting their “own work done” at best, and history’s greatest monster at worst. After all, if the Person hadn’t come barging in, Coleridge might have given the world the director’s cut of “Kubla Khan,” which might be all the way up at #20 on the Countdown today instead of the lousy #40 where I have it.
But every reaction brings about a counter-reaction. What if the person from Porlock came just in time? That is the suggestion of Stevie Smith’s wonderful “Thoughts about the Person from Porlock.”
This is the one tactical placement on my Countdown. I wanted to include Stevie Smith, and this is the poem of hers that I think most highly of. But it makes no sense to place it before “Kubla Khan,” and if I wait to include it much after, it’s not going to be as effective, either.
It’s a poem about work, and creativity, and rationalization, and excuses, and the wonder of language, and mystery, and depression, and people’s expectations of us, and a little bit about faith, and there’s even a cat in it. Of all the poems in the Countdown, it may be the most eclectic in style. It starts with a free-verse meditation; it continues with a lyric section in couplets; it meditates again; and it ends with a meta-meditation, almost in prose, about whether it was right to write the rest of it. As a poem about writers’ block and its attendant insecurities, it ends brilliantly with thoughts about such insecurities, and our guilt for even entertaining them.
But wait, my department Chair is at my door . . .