Michael McDowell
Portland Community College

Poets about Poetry

Whatever its actual content and overt interest, every poem is rooted in imaginative awe. Poetry can do a hundred and one things, delight, sadden, disturb, instruct--it may express every possible shade of emotion,  and describe every conceivable kind of event, but there is only one thing that all poetry must do: It must praise all it can for being and happening.
--W. H. Auden, "Making and Judging Poetry"

Reverie is the groundwork of the creative imagination; it is the privilege of the artist that with him it is not as with other men an escape from reality, but the means by which he accedes to it.
--Somerset Maugham

A school of sodden, contemplative poets emerged here, too. Even the original inhabitants were an introspective breed. . . . the Northwest coastal tribes were caught between the dark waters to the west, the heavily forested foothills and towering Cascade peaks to the east; forced by the lavish rains to spend weeks on end confined to their longhouses . . . a hushed but heavy force hangs in the Northwest air: it defies flamboyance, deflates extroversion and muffles the most exultant cry.
--Tom Robbins, Another Roadside Attraction

At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet.

There is no competition between true poets.
--William Blake

My nature is subdued to what it works in, like the dyer's hand.
--William Shakespeare, Sonnet 111

Empty pockets make empty heads.
--William Carlos Williams

A poet without love were a physical and metaphysical impossibility.
--Thomas Carlyle

To have great poetry there must be great audiences, too.
--Walt Whitman

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.
--T. S. Eliot, Philip Massinger, 1920

Yet technique matters, even so. God uses it, for a buffalo is not a leopard.
--James Dickey

For most defects, to delete is the instantaneous cure.
--Marianne Moore

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The lyrics of pop songs are so banal that if you show a spark of intelligence they call you a poet. And if you say you're not a poet then people think you're putting yourself down. But the people who call you a poet are people who never read poetry. Like poetry was something defined by Bob Dylan. They never read, say, Wallace Stevens.
--Paul Simon

A poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.
--Randall Jarrell

A despot doesn't fear eloquent writers preaching freedom--he fears a drunken poet who may crack a joke that will take hold.
--E. B. White

Say it, no ideas but in things.
--William Carlos Williams

Besies, to have failed as an artist may be a respectable and valuable thing.
--Randall Jarrell

Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.
--Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965)

The great man is he who does not lose his child's heart.
--Mencius (Meng-tzu; c. 371- c 289 BC)

The secret of being a bore is to tell everything.

Always a larger significance. A little thing touches a larger thing.
--Robert Frost

The classic is the local fully realized, words marked by a place.
--William Carlos Williams

It is difficult to get the news from poems, but men die miserably every day for  lack of what is found there.
--William Carlos Williams

People always ask: For whom does the poet write? He needs only to answer, For whom do you do good? Are you kind to your daughter because in the end someone will pay you for being? . . . The poet writes his poem for its own sake, for the sake of that order of things in which the poem takes the place that has awaited it.
--Randall Jarrell, "The Obscurity of the Poet," Poetry and the Age, 1953

No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.
--Robert Frost, "The Figure a Poem Makes," 1939

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Poetry should be at least as well written as prose.
--Ezra Pound

I'd as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down.
--Robert Frost, Interview, 1959

The colloquial is the root of every good poem. . . . . One half of individuality is locality.
--Robert Frost, Letter to Regis Michaud, 1918

The classic is the local fully realized, words marked by a place.
--William Carlos Williams

Good poems are the best teachers.
--Mary Oliver,  A Poetry Handbook 10

Once a spectator said, after Jack Nicklaus had chipped a shot in from a sand trap, "That's pretty lucky." Nicklaus is supposed to have replied, "Right. But I notice the more I practice, the luckier I get." If you write often, perhaps every day, you will stay in shape and will be better able to receive those good poems, which are finally a matter of luck, and get them down. Lucky accidents seldom happen to writers who don't work. You will find that you may rewrite and rewrite a poem and it never seems quite right. Then a much better poem may come rather fast and you wonder why you bothered with all that work on the earlier poem. Actually, the hard work you do on one poem is put in on all poems. The hard work on the first poem is responsible for the sudden ease of the second. If you just sit around waiting for the easy ones, nothing will come. Get to work.
--Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town, p. 17

To be a poet you must live with an intensity five times, nay a hundred times more furiously than that of those about you. There is no scene, no experience which should not contribute to your poetic appreciations and culture.
--Llewelyn Powys, Advice to a Young Poet, 1949

A good teacher can save a young poet years by simply telling him things he need not waste time on, like trying to will originality or trying to share an experience in language or trying to remain true to the facts (but that's the way it really happened). Roethke used to mumble: "Jesus, you don't want to say that." And you didn't but you hadn't yet become ruthless enough to create. You still felt some deep moral obligation to "reality" and "truth," and of course it wasn't moral obligation at all but fear of yourself and your inner life.
--Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town, p. 33

Don't write with a pen. Ink tends to give the impression the words shouldn't be changed.
Pen or pencil, write with what gives you the most sensual satisfaction.
Write in a hard-covered notebook with green lined pages. Green is easy on the eyes. Blank white paper seems to challenge you to create the world before you start writing. It may be true that you, the modern poet, must make the world as you go, but why be reminded of it before you even have one word on the page? The lines tend to want words. Blank paper begs to be left alone. The best notebooks I've found are National 43-581.
--Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town, p. 37

Make your first line interesting and immediate. Start, as some smarty once said, in the middle of things. When the poem starts, things should already have happened. (Note: White unlined paper gives you the feeling nothing has happened.) If Yeats had begun "Leda and the Swan" with Zeus spotting Leda and getting an erection, Yeats would have been writing a report.
--Richard Hugo, The Triggering Town, p. 38

Esse qua esse bonum est.
Being, as such, is good simply because it is being.
--St. Augustine

Nulla dies sine linea.
No day without a line.

The man who is his own master knocks in vain at the door of poetry.
Plato, quoted in Emerson, 1847

Perfect self-control is tantamount to a state of total paralysis. For control is a degree of inhibition, and a system which is perfectly inhibited is completely frozen . . . the artist has established an area of control within which he can abandon himself to spontaneity without restraint.
--Alan Watts, Nature, Man, & Woman

The man who is master of his passions is Reason's slave.
--Cyril Connolly (1903-1974)

It hinders the creative work of the mind if the intellect examines too closely the ideas as they pour in.
--Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805)

The great artist is the simplifier.
--Henri Amiel (1821-1881)

God, grant us men to see in a small thing principles which are common to things both small and great.
--St. Augustine (AD 354-430), in The Confessions of St. Augustine

It's hell when poets can't afford to buy each other's books.
--Carl Sandburg to Ezra Pound, 1917
Half the people who care, only borrow.
--Ezra Pound

No vers is libre for the man who wants to do a good job.
--T. S. Eliot, 1928

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Poetry tries to convey truth concernbing those subjects about which we care most and know least.
--Gilbert Murray

The adjective is the enemy of the noun.

As to the adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.
--Mark Twain

Nouns and verbs are almost pure metal; adjectives are cheaper ore.
--Marie Gilchrist (1893-); quoted in The Saturday Review of Literature, 1946

The abstract kills, the concrete saves.
--Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), journal entry for 7 January 1959

To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is the alone distinction of merit--general knowledges are those knowledges that idiots possess.
--William Blake (1757-1827), Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses

Ut pictura poesis.
As in painting, so in poetry.
--Horace, (65-8 BC), Epistles

Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling, for as soon as the mind responds it connects with the thing the feeling shown in the words; this is how poetry enters deeply into us. If the poet presents directly feelings which overwhelm him, and keeps nothing back to linger as an aftertaste, he stirs us superficially; he cannot start the hands and feet involuntarily waving and tapping in time, far less strengthen morality and refine culture, set heaven and earth in motion and call up the spirits!
--Wei T'ai (11th century)

O, for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts!
--John Keats

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
--Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), "A Defense of Poetry"

"The unacknowledged legislators of the world" describes the secret police, not the poets.
--W. H. Auden (1907-1973), quoted in Time, 26 Jan. 1970

Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.
--Madeleine L'Engle

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In composing, as a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigor it will give your style.
--Sydney Smith (1771-1845), Lady Holland's Memoir

Omnis festination parte diaboli est.
All haste is of the devil.
--Latin maxim

A good man is always a beginner.
--Martial (1st century BCE)

He has half the deed done, who has made a beginning.
--Horace (65-8 BC)

Very busy people always find time for everything . . . people with immense leisure find time for nothing.
--Ernest Dimnet (1866-1954), The Art of Thinking

You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.
--William Blake (1757-1827), The Marriage of Heaven & Hell

Snatching the eternal out of the desperately fleeting is the great magic trick of human existence.
--Tennessee Williams (1911-1983), "The Timeless World of a Play"

Rewriting isn't virtuous. It isn't something that ought to be done. It is simply something that most writers find they have to do to discover what they have to say and how to say it.
--Donald M. Murray

A poem should not mean / But be.
--Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), "Ars Poetica"

Ah, good taste! What a dreadful thing! Taste is the enemy of creativeness.
--Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

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Cynicism is cheap--you can buy it at any Monoprix store--it's built into all poor-quality goods.
--Graham Greene (1904-1991)

No great thing is created suddenly.
--Epictetus (c. 50-120), Discourses)

Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose-petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.
Don Marquis (1878-1937), The Sun Dial

No more can come out of a writer than has gone into him through his environment. The power of the writer is not separate from the power of the moment in which he is living. The meagerness of twentieth century writing is caused by a world that provides inadequate experience.
--Frederick Schorer

Poetry, like religion, must be ascetic, must have the element of poverty in it.
Ronald Blythe, Zen in English Literature

One must not always think that feeling is everything. Art is nothing without form.
--Gustave Flaubert, 1846

Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel certain that they mean something else.
--Oscar Wilde

Happiness is a function of creativity.
--Martin Grotjahn (1904-), Beyond Laughter

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Originality consists of an ability to give freshness to what is old.
--Theodore Maynard (1890-1956), "St. Francis de Sales

A return to the old always makes people who know nothing of the past think they are in the presence of something new.
--Edward Fischer (1914-); Everybody Steals from God

He labors vainly who endeavors to please every person.
--Latin proverb

The greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world.
--Wallace Stevens

A feeble writer . . . must have what he thinks a great theme, which we are already interested in through the accounts of others, but a genius--a Shakespeare, for instance--would make the history of his parish more interesting than another's history of the world.
--Henry David Thoreau, Journal, March 1861

Ask the fact for the form.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Poetry and the Imagination"

The foolish and the dead alone never change their opinions.
--James Russell Lowell

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When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.
John F. Kennedy (1917-1963)

The dignity of the artist lies in his duty of keeping awake the sense of wonder in the world.
--G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

The man who doesn't read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them.
--Mark Twain (1835-1910)

Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else.
--Albert Einstein (1879-1955), Ideas and Opinions

Omission is the beginning of all art.
--Lytton Strachey, 1912

Most people enjoy the sight of their own handwriting as they enjoy the smell of their own farts. Much as I loathe the typewriter, I must admit that it is a help in self-criticism. Typescript is so impersonal and hideous to look at that if I type out a poem, I immediately see defects which I missed when I looked through it in manuscript.
-- W. H. Auden, "Writing," The Dyer's Hand, 1962

Any life, however insignificant, would, if truthfully told, be of interest.
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Describe a dream, lose a reader.
--Lawrence Sanders

To write well, express yourself like the common people but think like a wise man.

That willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.
--Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 1817

Make new things familiar, and familiar things new.
--Samuel Johnson

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The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.
--Chinese proverb

Next to being a great poet is the power of  understanding one.
--Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), Hyperion

Style means that the author has fused his material and his technique with the distinctive quality of his personality.
F. O. Matthiessen, quoted by Marianne Moore in "Idiosyncrasy and Technique"

Thought must be hidden in verse like the nutritive essence in fruit. It is nourishing but seems merely delicious. One perceives pleasure only, but one receives a substance. Enchantment, that is the nourishment is conveys. The passage is sweet.
--Paul Valery (1871-1945), "A Poet's Notebook"

Cave ab homine unius libri.
Beware the man of one book.
Anonymous Latin saying, quoted by Isaac Disraeli in Curiosities of Literature, 1793

If poetry has an opposite, it is philosophy. Poetry is a materialization of experience; philosophy the abstraction of it.
--Karl Shapiro, "What Is Not Poetry?"

Poetry is a way of seeing things, not a way of saying things.
--Karl Shapiro, "What Is Not Poetry?"

The reaction of an audience to good poetry is laughter--the laughter of delight and discovery, not of derision. In fact, the basic emotion aroused by any work of art, however somber or tragic, is joy, even hilarity.
--Karl Shapiro, "What Is Not Poetry?"

Poeta nascitur, non fit.
The poet is born, not made.
--from Lucius Annaeus Florus, c. AD 125

I am a painstaking, conscientious, involved and devious craftsman in words, however unsuccessful the result so often appears, and to whatever wrong uses I may apply my technical paraphernalia. I use everything and anything to make my poems work and move in the direction I want them to: old tricks, new tricks, puns, portmanteau-words, paradox, allusion, paronomasia, paragram, catachresis, slang, assonantal rhymes, vowel rhymes, sprung rhythm. Every device there is in language is there to be used if you will. Poets have got to enjoy themselves sometimes, and the twisting and convolutions of words, the inventions and contrivances, are all part of the joy that is part of the painful, voluntary work.
--Dylan Thomas, "Notes on the Art of Poetry," 1951

What does it matter what poetry is, after all? If you want a definition of poetry, say: "Poetry is what makes me laugh or cry or yawn, what makes my toenails twinkle, what makes me want to do this or that or nothing," and let it go at that. All that matters about poetry is the enjoyment of it, however tragic it may be. . . . The joy and function of poetry is, and was, the celebration of man, which is also the celebration of God.
--Dylan Thomas, "Notes on the Art of Poetry," 1951

Last modified: March 9, 2002
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