injured poem

Once the poem is released, how little the poet owns it, or, indeed, matters to the poem. The poem has always been injured by the poet. Never, by man or woman, has it been fully released to its potential. Christopher Marlowe spoke for every poet when he wrote long ago in “Tamburlaine the Great” (and this is my favorite statement of what happens to a poem between its conception and its execution):

    If all the pens that ever poets held
    Had fed the feeling of their masters’ thoughts,
    And every sweetness that inspir’d their hearts,
    Their minds, and muses on admired themes;
    If all the heavenly quintessence they still
    From their immortal flowers of poesy,
    Wherein, as in a mirror, we perceive
    The highest reaches of a human wit;
    If these had made one poem’s period,
    And all combin’d in beauty’s worthiness,
    Yet should there hover in their restless minds
    One thought, one grace, one wonder, at the least,
    Which into words no virtue can digest.

Always, the struggle is to help the poem release itself from things it cannot, in various stages, do without: publishers, editors, critics, funds, sponsors. Always the effort must be to shift the emphasis back to where it belongs, to the poem, which, though injured and subjected to the thousand ills print is heir to, must escape and survive.

—Josephine Jacobsen, “From Anne to Marianne: Some Women in American Poetry,” Two Lectures (The Library of Congress pamphlet, 1973)

unimproved

Everything since Homer has improved, except poetry.

—Giacomo Leopardi, “Zibaldone di pensieri” (Poetry: November 1, 2010) translated from the Italian by W.S. Di Piero.

return to song

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
And everybody’s shouting
“Which Side Are You On?”
And Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Fighting in the captain’s tower
While calypso singers laugh at them
And fishermen hold flowers
Between the windows of the sea
Where lovely mermaids flow
And nobody has to think too much
About Desolation Row

—Bob Dylan, "Desolation Row"

The Nobel Prize in Literature 2016

the truth is

The truth is like poetry—And most people fucking hate poetry," (Overheard in a Washington D.C. bar) quoted by Michael Lewis in The Big Short.

proceeding before one’s eyes

Like his thoughts Stevens' poems exist in the present moment; one has a sense while reading him that creation is proceeding before one’s eyes. The whole is a continuous process, not a ‘talking about’ but a living thing, so that in a most extraordinary and exciting way one receives through the aesthetic sense an impression of pure potency.

—Geoffrey Moore, "Wallace Stevens: A Hero of Our Time," The Achievement of Wallace Stevens (J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1962), edited by Ashley Brown and Robert S. Haller.

ars longa

Richard Porson on Southey’s Thalaba: One of those poems “which will be read when Homer and Virgil are forgotten, but not till then.”

Commonplace Book, 1934-2012 (Pressed Wafer, 2015) by Daniel Aaron.

taste making

[Every] author, as far as he is great and at the same time original, has had the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed.

—William Wordsworth, "Essay Supplemental to the Preface" (1815)

Quoted in J. D. McClatchy's Sweet Theft: a poet's commonplace book (Counterpoint Press, 2016)

living part

I believe every space and comma is a living part of the poem and has its function, just as every muscle and pore of the body has its function. And the way the lines are broken is a functioning part essential to the poem's life.

I believe content determines form, and yet that content is discovered only in form. Like everything living, it is a mystery. The revelation of form itself can be a deep joy; yet I think form as means should never obtrude, whether from invention or carelessness, between the reader and the essential force of the poem, it must be so fused with that force.

—Denise Levertov, from her statement for Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry: 1945–1960.

self aware

Of his story, The Altar of the Dead, Henry James observed that it was on a theme which had been bothering him for years, but of which the artistic legitimacy was suspect; he had to write it, but he knew it to be pitched in a richly sentimental key which, under the hands of another, he might have condemned. His story, The Turn of the Screw, surely one of the finest ghost stories in any language, he frankly derided as a potboiler, making no reservations for its brilliance. He was, of course, right in both of these opinions: he was a better judge of Henry James than any other critic has been, he knew his parerga when he saw them, he could afford to wave them blandly aside. We should think, perhaps, a little less of him, as we are tempted to do of any artist, if he had taken his parerga too seriously—if he had appeared to see only dimly, or not at all, any distinction between these things, which were carved from stones flawed at the outset, and those others, which no flaw rebukes.

—Conrad Aiken, A Reviewer’s ABC: Collected Criticism of Conrad Aiken from 1916 to the Present (Meridian Books, 1958)

window moment

Many good poems have a kind of window-moment in them—they change their direction of gaze in a way that suddenly opens a broadened landscape of meaning and feeling. Encountering such a moment, the reader breathes in some new infusion, as steeply perceptible as any physical window's increase of light, scent, sound, or air. The gesture is one of lifting, unlatching, releasing; mind and attention swing open to new-peeled vistas.

—Jane Hirshfield, "Close Reading: Windows," Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.)

long poem about everything

Don't you love the Oxford dictionary? When I first read it I thought it was a really long poem about everything.

—David Bowie, BowieNet LiveChat, 4/27/1999.

not for tourists

I know who poetry can't accommodate: the tourist. I don't mean it is necessarily more highborn than shell art, though the effort, the ardor of it goes toward being borne up. But I believe it can't be identified with the compulsion to shop instead of the desire to touch, be touched.

—C.D. Wright, Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil (Copper Canyon Press, 2005)
Poetry is not magic. In so far as poetry, or any other of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.

—W.H. Auden, The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (Vintage Books/Random House, 1989)

erotics of art

What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art. If excessive stress on content provokes the arrogance of interpretation, more extended and more thorough descriptions of form would silence. What is needed is a vocabulary—a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary—for forms. The best criticism, and it is uncommon, is of this sort which dissolves considerations of content into those of form.

[…]

Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all.

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art—and, by analogy, our own experience—more, rather than less, real to us. The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

-10-
In place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.

—Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation” (1964), Susan Sontag: Essays of 1960s & 70s, (The Library of America, 2013)

alienated majesty

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Self-Reliance," Essays: First Series (1841)

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