vulgar error

An observation of the regular mode of the recurrence of harmony in the language of poetical minds, together with its relation to music, produced metre, or a certain system of traditional forms of harmony and language. Yet it is by no means essential that a poet should accommodate his language to this traditional form, so that the harmony, which is its spirit, be observed. The practice is indeed convenient and popular, and to be preferred, especially in such composition as includes much action: but every great poet must inevitably innovate upon the example of his predecessors in the exact structure of his peculiar versification. The distinction between poets and prose writers is a vulgar error. The distinction between philosophers and poets has been anticipated. Plato was essentially a poet—the truth and splendor of his imagery, and the melody of his language, are the most intense that it is possible to conceive. He rejected the measure of the epic, dramatic, and lyrical forms, because he sought to kindle a harmony in thoughts divested of shape and action, and he forebore to invent any regular plan of rhythm which would include, under determinate forms, the varied pauses of his style. Cicero sought to imitate the cadence of his periods, but with little success. Lord Bacon was a poet. His language has a sweet and majestic rhythm, which satisfies the sense, no less than the almost superhuman wisdom of his philosophy satisfies the intellect; it is a strain which distends, and then bursts the circumference of the reader’s mind, and pours itself forth together with it into the universal element with which it has perpetual sympathy. All the authors of revolutions in opinion are not only necessarily poets as they are inventors, nor even as their words unveil the permanent analogy of things by images which participate in the life of truth; but as their periods are harmonious and rhythmical, and contain in themselves the elements of verse; being the echo of the eternal music. Nor are those supreme poets, who have employed traditional forms of rhythm on account of the form and action of their subjects, less capable of perceiving and teaching the truth of things, than those who have omitted that form. Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton (to confine ourselves to modern writers) are philosophers of the very loftiest power.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry,” published posthumously in 1840 in Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments.

pro pruning

Any fool can cut a bad line. It takes a real pro to cut a good line.

—Theodore Roethke, quoted in Carolyn Kizer’s foreword to Theodore Roethke on Poetry and Craft (Copper Canyon Press, 2001)

prose errand

I have learned not to send a poem on a prose errand.

—John Ciardi, quoted in Edward Cefelli's introduction to Ciardi Himself: Fifteen Essays on Reading, Writing, and Teaching Poetry (U. of Arkansas Press, 1989)

essentially anonymous

A work of art has an author, and yet, when it is perfect, there is something essentially anonymous about it. It imitates the anonymity of divine art.

—Simone Weil, The Simone Weil Reader (David McKay, 1977), ed. George Panichas

strains and stains

Having verse set to music is like looking at a painting through a stained-glass window.

—Paul Valéry

invent it

If there were no poetry on any day in the world, poetry would be invented that day. For there would be an intolerable hunger. And from that need, from the relationships within ourselves and among ourselves as we went on living, and from every other expression of man’s nature, poetry would be—I cannot say invented or discovered—poetry would be derived.

—Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry (Wm. Morrow & Co., 1974)

critics' poet

As Henry James has required already, so Stevens will require the work of many an esthetic theorist and analyst to educate his public of the future. Supplementing the old dichotomy of the “readers’ poet” and the “poets’ poet,” it is possible to coin for Stevens a third category, that of the “critics’ poet.” The universities will have their joy explaining him long after the more popular poets are deservedly forgotten.

—Peter Viereck, “Some Notes On Wallace Stevens,” The Trinity Review (Vol. VIII, No. 3, May 1954)

third poetry

The first poetry is always written by sailors and farmers who sing with the wind in their teeth. The second poetry is written by scholars and students, wine drinkers who have learned to know a good thing. The third poetry is sometimes never written; but when it is, it is written by those who have brought nature and art into one thing.

Walter Anderson (1903-1965), American painter, writer and naturalist.

image explains

End with an image and don’t explain.

—Stanley Kunitz (no citation, but quoted in many places).

partisan of truth

The poet looks over a broad terrain and over vast stretches of time. He makes observations on the problems of his own time, to be sure, but he is a partisan only in the sense that he is a partisan of the truth. He arouses doubts and uncertainties and brings everything into question.

—Zbigniew Herbert, quoted in “Objects Don’t Lie: Talk with a Polish Poet” by Stephen Stepanchev, The New Leader, Vol. 51, August 1968, No. 16.

step aside

The crown of literature is poetry. It is its end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind. It is the achievement of beauty and delicacy. The writer of prose can only step aside when the poet passes.

—W. Somerset Maugham, Saturday Review, 20 July 1957.

twenty-fifth poem

P.S.: Do you in constructing your books generally have that idea of coherence in mind?

Wright: Every time. Did I mention to you Robert Frost's remark — it is a very Horatian remark — that if you have a book of twenty-four poems, the book itself should be the twenty-fifth? And I have tried that every time, every time.

—James Wright, interview with Peter Stitt, James Wright: A Profile (Logbridge-Rhodes, Inc., 1988) edited by Frank Graziano and Peter Stitt.

three names

I may interpolate here that there has been a strong implication by gentlemen reviewers that there is something intrinsically humorous and definitive, in the worst sense, about the three-name woman poet. And indeed, a great number of the triple-threat ladies have been very, very bad. If, however, the poetic stature of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allan Poe, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, or William Butler Yeats, for example, has been pegged to the number of their employed names, I have not observed it.

—Josephine Jacobsen, "From Anne to Marianne", Two Lectures (Library of Congress pamphlet, 1973)

virtue of patience

LEVINE: I was unable to write any poetry about my working life while that was my working life. I tried a few times. And the poems were hysterical. I think they were just - you know, I couldn't control them. My anger was so overwhelming that I couldn't cope with it, just as I couldn't write about my boyhood very effectively until I was 40. It was still too powerful for me. But I'm patient, so I hung in there. And that's probably by chief virtue as a writer is my patience. So I waited, and I kept trying to write about factory work but I kept throwing the poems away. And the first poem I ever published about working in a factory, I was, I think, 31 or 2, but I don't like the poem anymore.

GROSS: Can you give me a sense of what was going wrong in the factory poems when you were still there? Is there anything...

LEVINE: Yes, I can. The language was overblown. You know, I wanted to use the word ‘eternity’ and - you know. I wanted to use a kind of Latin diction to - almost a Miltonic diction and a great chorus - build up a great chorus of sound and - to dramatize the horror show of some of the places I had worked. And I didn't have any - there was no tenderness in it for the people that I worked with. There was no - and that was a, you know - that was part of the reward that I got for those years was the people I was meeting, even though you didn't talk to them that much because places were often so loud. But you'd meet them afterwards or you'd make friends with them and spend time with them. And they weren't getting in the poems at all. The poems were, you know, my poor soul being hammered out of shape by General Motors. And they were a bit self-indulged.

—Philip Levine, in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air, 1991.

all things done splendidly

When I first knew [William] Morris nothing could content him but being a monk, and getting to Rome, and then he must be an architect, and apprenticed himself to Street, and worked for two years, but when I came to London and began to paint he threw it all up, and must paint too, and then he must give it up and make poems, and then he must give it up and make window hangings and pretty things, and when he achieved that, he must be a poet again, and then after two or three years of Earthly Paradise time, he must learn dyeing, and lived in a vat, and learned weaving, and knew all about looms, and then made more books, and learned tapestry, and then wanted to smash everything up and begin the world anew, and now it is printing he cares for, and to make wonderfully rich-looking books—and all things he does splendidly—and if he lives the printing will have an end, but not I hope, before Chaucer and the Morte d’Arthur are done; then he’ll do I don’t know what, but every minute will be alive.

Edward Burns-Jones, c.1890, quoted in Time Remembered‎ (1933) by Frances Horner, p. 14., and in William Morris: Words & Wisdom (National Portrait Gallery, London, 2014)

died of being himself

In 1896 William Morris died at the age of sixty-two. Morris was one of the most talented and respected figures in the Victorian Era, but the superhuman range and pace of his vocations—painter, architect, designer, craftsman, writer, book-maker, socialist crusader—caused one physician to attribute his death to "simply being William Morris, and having done more work than most ten men."

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)