feeling things

Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling.

—Wei T’ai, (A poet of Sung Dynasty cited in A.C. Graham’s Poems of the Late T’ang), quoted by Charles Reznikoff.

world without bells

Poetry shouldn’t tell us what we already know, though of course it can revive what we think we know. A durable poet, the rarest of all birds, has a unique point of view and the gift of language to express it. The unique point of view can often come from a mental or physical deformity. Deep within us, but also on the surface, is the wounded ugly boy who has never caught an acceptable angle of himself in the mirror. A poet can have a deep sense of himself as a Quasimodo in a world without bells, or as the fine poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote:

     A feast of brief hopes, a rally of the proud,
     A tournament of hunchbacks, literature.

—Jim Harrison, “King of Pain,” review of The Pleasures of the Damned, Poems, 1951-1993 by Charles Bukowski, in The New York Times Book Review (November 25, 2007).

period style

May a poet write as a poet or must he write as a period? For modernism, in this perverted sense, likewise becomes a critical tyranny, increasing contemporary mannerisms in poetry instead of freeing the poet of obligation to conform to any particular set of literary theories."

—Laura Riding and Robert Graves, A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927)

room to be yourself

“For the power you so dearly aspire to, Levine, you must turn to the master, Milton, the most powerful poet in the language, though you might do well to avoid Latinate vocabulary. Have you studied Latin? Levine: “No.” “You might consider doing so; that way you’ll know what to avoid when you’re stealing from Milton. Do you have another favorite among your contemporaries?” Levine: “Dylan Thomas.” Berryman: “It doesn’t show, Levine, it doesn’t show. You’ve done a superb job of masking that particular debt. How have you managed that?” Levine: “I didn’t. I wrote through my Dylan Thomas phase and quit. It was impossible for me to write under his influence and not sound exactly like him except terrible.” Berryman: “Levine, you’ve hit upon a truth. Certain poets are so much themselves they should not be imitated: they leave you no room to be yourself, and Thomas was surely one of them, as was Hart Crane, who probably ruined the careers of more young poets than anything except booze. Levine, you might go to the source of Dylan’s own lyrical mysticism, and who would that be?” Silence. “Mr. Justice?” Justice: “Blake.” “Exactly, you might go to Blake, who is so impossibly lyrical and inventive no one in the world has the talent to sound like him.” In an unusually hushed voice he recited all of Blake’s early “Mad Song,” ending:

     I turn my back to the east
     From whence comforts have increas’d;
     For light doth seize my brain
     With frantic pain.

“Better to learn from a poet who does not intoxicate you,” said Berryman, “better to immerse yourself in Hardy, whom no American poet wants to sound like. A great poet seldom read.”

—Philip Levine, “Mine Own John Berryman,” The Bread of Time (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994)

words go through us

A poet’s words go through us and through us. And that’s causally connected with the use that they have in our life. And it is also connected with the way in which, conformably to this use, we let our thoughts roam up and down in the familiar surroundings of the words.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, 155.

[Cited in The Colors of the Mind: Conjectures on Thinking in Literature by Angus Fletcher]

entity of direct appeal

Let me interpose here this axiom of criticism: by explaining the nature of a work of art, we do not explain it away. It is an entity of direct appeal; we do not, in the process of appreciation…unfold the process of creation.

—Herbert Read, Form in Modern Poetry (Sheed & Ward, 1933)

never finished

A poem is never finished: it's always an accident that puts a stop to it--i.e., gives it to the public.

—Paul Valéry, "Littérature," Œuvres II (1960).

(W.H. Auden altered this statement to “Poems are never finished; they are abandoned.”)

matter of rendering

I desired to see English become at once more colloquial and more exact, verse more fluid and more exacting of its practitioners, and above, as I have said, that it should be realized that poetry, as it were dynamically, is a matter of rendering, not comment.

—Ford Madox Ford, foreword to the Imagist Anthology, 1930

harmonious concept

When I speak of the poem, or often when I speak of the poem, in this book, I mean not merely a literary form, but the brightest and most harmonious concept, or order, of life; and the references should be read with that in mind.

—Wallace Stevens, the inscription in his Collected Poems in the copy given to Elias Mengel, dated June 6, 1955, shortly before Stevens died. Quoted on page 288 of Parts of a World: Wallace Stevens Remembered, an oral biography by Peter Brazeau.

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.