calm forms

Still others owe their beauty to human violence: the push toppling them from their pedestals or the iconoclast’s hammer has made them what they are. The classical work of art is thus infused with pathos: the mutilated gods have the air of martyrs. Sometimes, erosion of the elements and the brutality of man unite to create an unwonted appearance which belongs to no school or time: headless and armless, separated from her recently discovered hand, worn away by all the squalls of the Sporades, the Victory of Samothrace has become not so much a woman as pure sea-wind and sky.


A world of violence turns about these calm forms.

—Margeurite Yourcenar, title essay of That Might Sculptor, Time (FSG, 1992), translation by Walter Kaiser.

sortit à cinq heures

Poet and critic Paul Valéry once remarked that he could never write a novel because he would have to write sentences like, ‘The Marquis left at five’.

[n.b.: I ran across this anecdote again recently in David Markson's Reader's Block. The above is a paraphrase of his entry.]

looking vs. seeing

What this exercise [spend a full 3 hours in front of a painting, recording your observations] shows students is that just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness. Or, in slightly more general terms: access is not synonymous with learning. What turns access into learning is time and strategic patience.

The art historian David Joselit has described paintings as deep reservoirs of temporal experience—“time batteries”—“exorbitant stockpiles” of experience and information. I would suggest that the same holds true for anything a student might want to study at Harvard University—a star, a sonnet, a chromosome. There are infinite depths of information at any point in the students’ education. They just need to take the time to unlock that wealth.

—Jennifer L. Roberts, "The Power of Patience"
Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention

things begin to appear

My poems (in the beginning) are like a table on which one places interesting things one has found on one's walks: a pebble, a rusty nail, a strangely shaped root, the corner of a torn photograph, etc. ... where after months of looking at them and thinking about them daily, certain surprising relationships, which hint at meanings, begin to appear. These objets trouvés of poetry are, of course, bits of language. The poem is the place where one hears what the language is really saying, where the full meaning of words begins to emerge. That's not quite right! It's not so much what the words mean that is crucial, but rather, what they show and reveal.

—Charles Simic, "Notes on Poetry and Philosophy," Wonderful Words, Silent Truth (Poets on Poetry series, U. of Michigan Press, 1990)

essential things

Yeats saw the things of this world differently; he was an essentialist. In the men and the women he knew—both those he loved and those he hated—as well as in swans, hares, swords, and towers, he spied some changeless and irreducible essence. He was a Realist in the medieval sense. He believed that universals are real, that those abstract terms by which we categorize entities—Man or Woman, Beauty or Liberty, Swan or Goose—possess the fullest measure of genuine existence in sone suprasensual realm, and that the earthly embodiments of these transcendent archetypes are but momentary instantiations.

—Eric Ormsby, “Passionate Syntax,” Fine Incisions: Essays on Poetry and Place (The Porcupine Quill, 2011)

community of objectives

It is the poet and philosopher who provide the community of objectives in which the artist participates. Their chief preoccupation, like the artist, is the expression in concrete form of their notions of reality. Like him, they deal with verities of time and space, life and death, and the heights of exaltation as well as the depths of despair. The preoccupation with these eternal problems creates a common ground which transcends the disparity in the means used to achieve them.

—Mark Rothko, The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art (Yale Univ. Press, 2012)

language like pigments

it is easier now to follow the inner flow beneath these scraps of language, to appreciate the simple clarity of the sentences he has constructed, to recognize that these meditations (for they have never been anything else) move not in the manner of events or in the manner of a river or in the manner, either, of thought, or in the “happy hour” fashion of the told tale (each brought so beautifully together in “Boat Trip,” one of the triumphs of Walser’s art), but in the way of an almost inarticulate metaphysical feeling; a response to the moves and meanings of both human life and nature, which is purged of every local note and self-interested particularity and which achieves, like the purest poetry, an understanding mix of longing, appreciation, and despair, as if they were the pigments composing a color to lay down upon the surface of something passing—sweetly regretful—like the fall of light upon a bit of lost water, or a gleam caught in a fold of twilit snow, as if it were going to remain there forever.

—William Gass, “Robert Walser,” Finding A Form: Essays (Knopf, 1996)

event not record

A poem is an event, not a record of an event.

—Robert Lowell

Quoted in Robert Lowell: Interviews and Memoirs (U. of Michigan Press, 1988), edited by Jeffrey Meyers, 304.

instead of blindly stumbling

What produces all philosophical treatises and poems and scriptures is the struggle of Life to become divinely conscious of itself instead of blindly stumbling hither and thither in the line of least resistance.

—George Bernard Shaw, Epigrams of Bernard Shaw (Haldeman-Julius Co., 1925)

by indirect means

The relationship between an artist and reality is always an oblique one, and indeed there is no good art which is not consciously oblique. If you respect the reality of the world, you know that you can only approach that reality by indirect means.

—Richard Wilbur, Quarterly Review of Literature, 7, p.189

what a pity

Sometimes, looking at the many books I have at home, I feel I shall die before I come to the end of them, yet I cannot resist the temptation of buying new books. Whenever I walk into a bookstore and find a book on one of my hobbies—for example, Old English or Old Norse poetry—I say to myself, “What a pity I can’t buy that book, for I already have a copy at home."

―Jorge Luis Borges, This Craft of Verse (Harvard Univ. Press, 2000)

straightforward and quirky

There was a savior who rescued me from the Romantic complexities and showed me that I could love poetry in English: Carl Sandburg, my first American poet. He was quite popular at the time, and a classmate introduced me to one of his volumes. Here were poems I could understand, written in free verse, in plain, idiomatic American English. They were straightforward and, at the same time, quirky and mysterious. Their spirit was democratic and deeply humane...

—Lisel Mueller, First Loves: Poets Introduce the Essential Poems That Captivated and Inspired Them (Simon & Schuster, 2000), edited by Carmela Ciuraru.

trope and scheme

The study of rhetoric distinguishes between tropes, or figures of meaning such as metaphor and metonymy, and schemes, or surface patterns of words. Poetry is a matter of trope; and verse, of scheme or design.

—John Hollander, Rhyme's Reason

education in public

Allen Tate said, describing his own critical essays, “I simply conducted my education in public.”

Quoted in “The Exercise of Reverence,” Essays on Poetry (Dalkey Archive Press, 2003) by Ralph J. Mills, Jr.

harem of words

He kept as it were a harem of words, to which he was constant and absolutely faithful. Some he favoured more than others, but he neglected none. He used them more often out of compliment than of necessity.

—Edward Thomas, speaking of Swinburne, Algernon Charles Swinburne: A Critical Study (Mitchell Kennerley, 1912)

each word

In a poem, each word has to be right and contribute to the whole; in a story only every sentence. In a novel only every page.

Alison Laurie, Real People (Penguin, 1978)

more fully in verse

Poetry. Perhaps I can express more fully in verse ideas and emotions which run counter to the inert crystallized opinions—hard as rock—which the vast body of men have vested interests in supporting.

—Thomas Hardy
[Notebook entry, 17 October 1896]

poems of anonymous

When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen, some Emily Brontë who dashed her brains out on the moor or mopped and mowed about the highways crazed with the torture that her gift had put her to. Indeed, I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.

—Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (1929)

no echoes

Slowly from nice neat letters;
doing things well
is more important than doing them.


Wake up singers!
Time for the echoes to end
and the voices to begin.


Quarreler, boxer
fight it out with the wind.
It’s not the fundamental I
that the poet is searching for
but the essential you.

—Antonio Machado, There is No Road (White Pine Press, 2003), Mary G. Berg and Dennis Maloney translators.

bars of gold thrown ringing

[Commenting on a stanza from Shelley’s poem “Laon and Cyntha"]

The rhythm is varied and troubled, and the lines, which are in Spenser like bars of gold thrown ringing one upon another, are broken capriciously. Nor is the meaning the less an aspiration of the indolent muses, for it wanders hither and thither at the beckoning of fancy. It is now busy with a meteor and now with throbbing blood that is fire, and with a mist that is a swoon and a sleep that is life. It is bound together by the vaguest suggestion, while Spenser’s verse is always rushing on to some preordained thought.

—W. B. Yeats, “Edmund Spenser,” Selected Criticism and Prose (Macmillian, 1980)

incurable and infectious malady

“As you will," said the barber; "but what are we to do with these little books that are left?"

"These must be, not chivalry, but poetry," said the curate; and opening one he saw it was the "Diana" of Jorge de Montemayor, and, supposing all the others to be of the same sort, "these," he said, "do not deserve to be burned like the others, for they neither do nor can do the mischief the books of chivalry have done, being books of entertainment that can hurt no one."

"Ah, senor!" said the niece, "your worship had better order these to be burned as well as the others; for it would be no wonder if, after being cured of his chivalry disorder, my uncle, by reading these, took a fancy to turn shepherd and range the woods and fields singing and piping; or, what would be still worse, to turn poet, which they say is an incurable and infectious malady."

Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1605), Chapter VI: “Of the diverting and important scrutiny which the curate and the barber made in the library of our ingenious gentleman”

tale not teller

Source of Lawrence's oft-quoted remark: ‘Never trust the teller, trust the tale’ or ‘Trust the tale, not the teller’

The artist usually sets out—or used to—to point a moral and adorn a tale. The tale, however, points the other way as a rule. Two blankly opposing morals, the artist's and the tale's. Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.

—D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (Thomas Seltzer, Inc., 1923), p. 3.

creative drive

Parker Kaufman speaking about his father, Beat poet Bob Kaufman:

"It's frustrating when everyone's telling you, 'How dare you talk back to your dad? He's a genius,' " Parker says. "Meanwhile, it's O.K. for him to sleep on the sofa all day, drinking beer and smoking four packs of cigarettes."

Children of the Beats by Daniel Pinchbeck
Nov. 5, 1995, The New York Times Magazine

[And When I Die, I Won't Stay Dead, documentary about Bob Kaufman]

better than silence

I am working and trying to deserve the privilege of speaking, writing, and knowing perfectly well that the only words which really deserve to exist are words better than silence, but it’s not easy to find these words. Because language is such a word. The language of silence seems to be much more powerful. It’s a great challenge. That’s why I go on working and working, looking for words, chasing words.

—Eduardo Galeano, interview by Robert Birnbaum, published July 18, 2006 on Identity Theory

stands at the boundary

There is no doubt of the fact that “Cavafy stands at the boundary where poetry strips herself in order” (as I have said elsewhere) “to become prose.” No one has ever gone farther in this direction. He is the most anti-poetic (or a-poetic) poet I know.

—George Seferis, “Cavafy and Eliot—A Comparison,” On the Greek Style (Little Brown, 1966), trans. by Rex Warner.

light to see by

The poem…is a little myth of man’s capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see—it is, rather, a light by which we may see—and what we see is life.

—Robert Penn Warren, Saturday Review (March 22, 1958)

entre nous

OBSCURITY, A PRODUCT OF TWO FACTORS. If my mind is richer, more rapid, freer, more disciplined than yours, neither you nor I can do anything about it.

—Paul Valéry, The Art of Poetry (Vintage, 1961), trans. by Denise Folliot.

hearing it read

Strolling across the University of California, Santa Barbara campus one afternoon, poet and professor Kenneth Rexroth saw one of his students lying on the grass. “What are you doing?,” he asked. “Oh, I’m reading a book of poetry,” the student replied. “How can you be reading poetry?” Rexroth queried. “I don’t hear anything.”

Quoted from Mira Rosenthal’s “The Self Made Strange: On Translating Tomasz Różycki’s ‘Iterations',” Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets (Southern Illinois U. Press, 2010), edited by Blas Falconer, Beth Martinelli, and Helena Mesa.

greater lyric

I begin to understand how a critic like [Ivor] Winters can argue that the brief lyric may be greater than a complete tragedy, since the lyric can hope for perfection, an unflawed wholeness and unity.

—Donald Justice, “On the Purity of Style,” Platonic Scripts (U. of Michigan Press, 1984)

portion of its lost heart

Though she may never compose an epic or a tragic drama in five acts, the woman poet has a singular role and precarious destiny. And, at the moment, in a time lacking in truth and certainty and filled with anguish and despair, no woman should be shamefaced in attempting to give back to the world, through her work, a portion of its lost heart.

―Louise Bogan "The Heart and the Lyre," essay (1947).

solo voice

All poetry is of the nature of soliloquy.

John Stuart Mill, “Thoughts on Poetry and its Varieties,” The Crayon, vol. 7, no. 4, 1860.

noisy insect

A quotation is not an excerpt. A quotation is a cicada. It is part of its nature never to quiet down.

—Osip Madelstam, “Conversation about Dante,” Selected Poems (New York Review of Books, 2004), translated by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin.

good soup

Je vis de bonne soupe, et non de beau langage.

Molière's Les Femmes Savantes (The Learned Ladies)

[I live on good soup, and not beautiful language.]

she says

Say it.     Say it.
The universe is made of stories,
not of atoms.

—Muriel Rukeyser, from “The Speed of Darkness, Out of Silence: Selected Poems (TriQuarterly Books, 1992)

wild flower

When we talk of wild poetry, we sometimes forget the parallel of wild flowers. They exist to show that a thing may be more modest and delicate for being wild.

—G. K. Chesterton, Chaucer (1932), Collected Works Vol. XVIII

dark passage

[Poetry’s] alleged obscurity is due not to its own nature, which is to enlighten, but to the darkness which it explores, and must explore: the dark of the soul herself and the dark of the mystery which envelops human existence.

—St-John Perse, essay entitled "On Poetry," translation by W.H. Auden, St. John Perse: Collected Poems (Princeton U. Press, 1971)

tear in half

Almost the only thing I still like nowadays is this process of scraping away. No more stylistic gewgaws. Tear yourself in half or else take the finished poem and tear that in half.

(April 15, 1937, Letters to Marcel Béalu)

—Max Jacob, Hesitant Fire, Selected Prose of Max Jacob (U. of Nebraska Press, 1991), translated and edited by Moishe Black and Maria Green.

the rest is literature

Let music be, more of it and always!
Let your verse be the thing in motion
Which one feels who flees from an altering soul,
Towards other skies to other loves.

Let your verse be the happy occurrence,
Somehow within the restless morning wind,
Which goes about smelling of mint and thyme...
And all the rest is literature.

—Paul Verlaine, "Art Poétique," translation by Eli Siegel

tissue of quotations

We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author/God) but a multidimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture.

—Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” (1968), Image-Music-Text (London: Fontana Press, 1977), trans. S. Heath.

imagination and madness

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination. Artistic paternity is as wholesome as physical paternity. Moreover, it is worthy of remark that when a poet really was morbid it was commonly because he had some weak spot of rationality on his brain. Poe, for instance, really was morbid; not because he was poetical, but because he was specially analytical. Even chess was too poetical for him; he disliked chess because it was full of knights and castles, like a poem. He avowedly preferred the black discs of draughts, because they were more like the mere black dots on a diagram.

G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy