walk alone

I suggest that people who like to be alone, who walk alone, will perhaps be serious workers in the art field.

—Agnes Martin, Writings / Schriften (English and German Edition, Kunstmuseum Winterthur / Edition Cantz, 1992), edited by Dieter Schwarz

as the crow flies

...how are we to say what we see in a crow's flight? Is it not enough to say the crow flies purposefully, or heavily, or rowingly, or whatever. There are no words to capture the infinite depth of crowiness in the crow's flight. All we can do is use a word as an indicator, or a whole bunch of words as a directive. But the ominous thing in the crow's flight, the bare-faced, bandit thing, the tattered beggarly gipsy thing, the caressing and shaping yet slightly clumsy gesture of the downstoke, as if the wings were both too heavy and too powerful, and the headlong sort of merriment, the macabre pantomime ghoulishness and the undertaker sleekness—you could go on for a very long time with phrases of that sort and still have completely missed your instant, glimpse knowledge of the world of the crow's wingbeat. And a bookload of such descriptions is immediately rubbish when you look up and see the crow flying.

—Ted Hughes,"Words & Experience," Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry (Bloodaxe Books, 2001), edited by W.N. Herbert and Matthew Hollis

bird poetics

As the third day came around, with these four lines [of a poem] as a body or at least part of a body, I had acquired a structure capable of development. These lines I carried with me in my head as I walked over to the main camp for breakfast. I carried them back on my return, and with pad and pencil sat down on our porch looking out on a more placid stretch of the river. Between the river and the porch lay a meadow over which many different birds were disporting. Soon I found myself absorbed in their enterprises, and in particular noted the hop-hop-hop of a certain small bird. That hop-hop-hop was another device of my devil, this time more tempter than censor, to divert me from my appointed project. I had begun to construct a fantasy that poetry is the language and rhythm for birds, and that prose is for cows. Indeed I may still write that poem. I’ll tuck away the line: Prose is for cows.

—Melville Cane, Making a Poem: An Inquiry into the Creative Process (Harvest Book, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952, 1960)

more there than the literal

...though the material of poetry is verbal, its import is not the literal assertion made in the words, but the way the assertion is made, and this involves the sound, the tempo, the aura of associations of the words, the long or short sequences of ideas, the wealth or poverty of transient imagery that contains them, the sudden arrest of fantasy by pure fact, or of familiar fact by sudden fantasy, the suspense of literal meaning by a sustained ambiguity resolved in a long-awaited key-word, and the unifying, all-embracing artifice of rhythm.

—Susanne K. Langer, Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of Reason, Rite, and Art (1942)

fewer blues

There are nine different words for the color blue in the Spanish Maya dictionary but just three Spanish translations, leaving six [blue] butterflies that can be seen only by the Maya, proving that when a language dies six butterflies disappear from the consciousness of the earth.

—Earl Shorris, The Last Word: Can the World’s Small Languages Be Saved (Harpers, 2000)

ideal reader

               ‘To serve the people,’
one must write for the ideal reader. Only for the ideal reader.
And who or what is that ideal reader? God. One must imagine,
one must deeply imagine
                     that great Attention.

—Denise Levertov, “Conversation in Moscow,” The Freeing of the Dust (New Directions, 1975)

[The poem is referencing the words of Pasternak.]

daily dose of verse

Each morning, for several months, The Chicago Tribune has published at the head of its first column, verses under the caption: “Poems You Ought to Know.” It has explained its action by the following quotation from Professor Charles Eliot Norton: “Whatever your occupation may be, and however crowded your hours with affairs, do not fail to secure at least a few minutes every day for refreshment of your inner life with a bit of poetry.”

From the intro to Poems You Ought To Know (Fleming H. Revell Co., 1903), selected and edited by Elia W. Peattie.

yet to saturate

The idea has come to me that what I want to do now is to saturate every atom. I mean to eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity: to give the moment whole; whatever it includes. Say that the moment is a combination of thought; sensation; the voice of the sea. Waste, deadness, come from the inclusion of things that don’t belong to the moment; this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner: it is false, unreal, merely conventional. Why admit anything to literature that is not poetry—by which I mean saturated? Is that not my grudge against novelists? that they select nothing? The poets succeeding by simplifying: practically everything is left out. I want to put practically everything in: yet to saturate. That is what I want to do in The Moths.

—Virginia Woolf, diary entry of 28 November 1928, A Writer's Diary by Virginia Woolf (1953), edited by Leonard Woolf.

pleasantly astonished

The art to astonish in a pleasant manner, to make a subject strange and yet familiar and attractive, this is romantic poetry.


Quoted in the The Brahms Notebooks* (Pendragon Press, 2003) translated by Agnes Eisenberger

*originally Jungen Kreislers Schatzkästlein by Johannes Brahms, edited and introduced by Carl Krebs

simple and practical

In my civilization it's customary to describe poetry as discarded, almost moribund, an all-too-exclusive art form, without power to break through. And the poets try to push themselves upon the world of the mass media, to get a few crumbs of attention. I think it is time to emphasize that poetry—in spite of all the bad poets and bad readers—starts from an advantageous position. A piece of paper, some words: it's simple and practical. It gives independence. Poetry requires no heavy, vulnerable apparatus that has to be lugged around, it isn't dependent on temperamental performers, dictatorial directors, bright producers with irresistible ideas. No big money is at stake. A poem doesn't come in one copy that somebody buys and locks up in a storeroom waiting for its market value to go up; it can't be stolen from a museum or become currency in the buying and selling of narcotics, or get burned up by a vandal.

When I started writing, at 16, I had a couple of like-minded school friends. Sometimes, when the lessons seemed more than usually trying, we would pass notes to each other between our desks—poems and aphorisms, which would come back with the more or less enthusiastic comments of the recipient. What an impression those scribblings would make! There is the fundamental situation of poetry. The lesson of official life goes rumbling on. We send inspired notes to one another.

—Tomas Tranströmer,"Answer to Uj Iras," Ironwood 13 (1979), pp38-39, translated by Judith Moffett.

unrefuted song

I am happy, and I think full of an energy, of an energy I had despaired of. It seems to me that I have found what I wanted. When I try to put all into a phrase I say: 'Man can embody truth but he cannot know it'. I must embody it in the completion of my life. The abstract is not life and everywhere draws out its contradictions. You can refute Hegel but not the Saint or the Song of Sixpence.

—W. B. Yeats, in letter to Lady Elizabeth Pelham three weeks before his death.

starting with the self

In most books, the I, or first person, is omitted; in this it will be retained; that, in respect to egotism, is the main difference. We commonly do not remember that it is, after all, always the first person that is speaking. I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden: Or, Life in the Woods.

ethical relationship

All good poetry depends on the ethical relation between imagination and the image. Images are not ornaments; they are truths.

—Eavan Boland, “A Kind of Scar,” Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet in Our Time (W.W. Norton, 1996)

cat feet on crusted snow

In 1936 I heard Wallace Stevens read his poetry at Harvard: it was the first time Stevens had ever read his poetry in public, and this first reading was at once an indescribable ordeal and a precious event to Stevens.... Before and after reading each poem [he] spoke of the nature of poetry... he said, among other things, that the least sound counts, the least sound and the least syllable. He illustrated this observation by telling of how he had awakened after midnight the week before and heard the sounds made by a cat walking delicately and carefully on the crusted snow outside his house.

—Delmore Schwartz, "The Present State of Poetry” (1958), Selected Essays of Delmore Schwartz (Univ. of Chicago, 1970), eds. Donald A. Dike and David H. Zucker.

[Quote first encountered on Don Share's Squadermania blog.]

non linear

If they give you ruled paper, write the other way.

—Juan Ramón Jiménez (1881-1958)

[No source found, but quoted as epigraph to Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.]

raw and cooked

Two poetries are now competing, a cooked and a raw. The cooked, marvelously expert, often seems laboriously concocted to be tasted and digested by a graduate seminar. The raw, huge blood-dripping gobbets of unseasoned experience are dished up for midnight listeners. There is a poetry that can only be studied, and a poetry that can only be declaimed, a poetry of pedantry, and a poetry of scandal. I exaggerate, of course. Randall Jarrell has said that the modern world has destroyed the intelligent poet's audience and given him students.

—Robert Lowell, 1960 National Book Award acceptance speech.

or elephants or love

LISH: There’s that figure whales. Whales and elephants and Alcibiades. What precisely do you mean by whales?

GILBERT: You know without my telling you that no poet means precisely anything. It’s not a one-to-one relation. That’s allegory. It means a lot of things. For one, it’s the impossibly literal world. And it’s what you can’t reduce to the human scale. For me, trying to think about a whale, that endlessness down in that infinity of depth, in darkness, moving around—with a mind inside it…

LISH: Doing things.

GILBERT: Yes, and silent. I can’t make any adjustment to it. Like Lawrence said: “I said to my heart, who are these? / And my heart couldn’t own them.” He was talking about fish. And he says someplace else in the poem: “There are limits / To you my heart; / And to the one God / Fish are beyond me.” Whales in this sense, the sudden sense of the alien nature of the universe not translatable into human terms. But what particularly interests me is the sense of magnitude. It’s out of scale, and not just physically. It threatens my life, the formulations on which I operate. I have to redo my mind. There’s a poem by Rilke where he goes along describing a statue. All of a sudden, for no reason, he breaks off and says: You must change your life. When I think about whales, it’s the same in a way. Or elephants or love.

—Jack Gilbert, interview by Gordon Lish, Genesis West, #1, 1962.

simplest vocabulary

The axiom is that the mark of poetic intelligence or vocation is passion for language, which is thought to mean delirious response to language’s smallest communicative unit: to the word. The poet is supposed to be the person who can’t get enough of words like "incarnadine." This was not my experience. From the time, at four or five or six, I first started reading poems, first thought of the poets I read as my companions, my predecessors – from the beginning I preferred the simplest vocabulary. What fascinated me were the possibilities of context. What I responded to, on the page, was the way a poem could liberate, by means of a word’s setting, through subtleties of timing, of pacing, that word’s full and surprising range of meaning. It seemed to me that simple language best suited this enterprise; such language, in being generic, is likely to contain the greatest and most dramatic variety of meaning within individual words. I liked scale, but I liked it invisible. I loved those poems that seemed so small on the page but that swelled in the mind; I didn’t like the windy, dwindling kind. Not surprisingly, the sort of sentence I was drawn to, which reflected these tastes and native habit of mind, was paradox, which has the added advantage of nicely rescuing the dogmatic nature from a too moralizing rhetoric.

—Louise Glück, "Education of the Poet," Proofs & Theories: Essays on Poetry (New York: Ecco, 1994)

unfashionable things

Fashions, forms of machinery, the more complex social, financial, political adjustments, and so forth, are all ephemeral, exceptional; they exist but will never exist again. Poetry must concern itself with (relatively) permanent things. These have poetic value; the ephemeral has only news value.

—Robinson Jeffers, forward to Selected Poems (p. XV)

dancing logos

But if it should turn out that music leads to language, rather than language to music, it helps us understand for the first time the otherwise baffling historical fact that poetry evolved before prose. Prose was at first known as pezos logos, literally 'pedestrian, or walking, logos', as opposed to the usual dancing logos of poetry. In fact early poetry was sung: so the evolution of literary skill progresses, if that is the correct word, from right-hemisphere music (words that are sung), to right-hemisphere language (the metaphorical language of poetry), to left hemisphere language (the referential language of prose)."

—Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (Yale U. Press, 2009)