Tuesday, April 3, 2012

This Business of Poetry, Part 9: Poet Perspectives on Poetry and Poets

So, we have been plying, even playing in, the desert places, living, observing, breathing, hoping to be inspired, developing our practice of making a daily note and jotting down ideas. This all seems well and good, but is this worth our effort?

Let us hear from poets about writing and the role of the poet.

Kenneth Rexroth, on making money as a poet:

None of us makes a living by poetry, although we think it one of the most important activities man has ever had or could ever hope to have, as long as society remains as it is.

T.S. Eliot, about the mind of a poet:

The poet's mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.

Dana Gioia on the compromise of poetry as art for poetry as job security:

Only a philistine would romanticize the blissfully banished artistic poverty of yesteryear. But a clear-eyed observer must also recognize that by opening the poet's trade to all applicants and by employing writers to do something other than write, institutions have changed the social and economic identity of the poet from artist to educator. In social terms the identification of poet with teacher is now complete. The first question one poet now asks another upon being introduced is "Where do you teach?" The problem is not that poets teach. The campus is not a bad place for a poet to work. It's just a bad place for all poets to work. Society suffers by losing the imagination and vitality that poets brought to public culture. Poetry suffers when literary standards are forced to conform with institutional ones.

Mary Oliver on what it means to be a poet:

Poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you put your life into it and make something out of that.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, commenting that poetry is a language of philosophy:

No man was ever yet a great poet, without being at the same time a profound philosopher. For poetry is the blossom and the fragrancy of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, emotions, language.

Jack Gilbert, on the dilemma of modern poets.

A lot of poets don’t have any poems to write. After their first book, what are they going to do? They can’t keep saying their hearts are broken. They start to write poems about childhood. Then what do they do? Some of it is just academic poetry—they learn how to write the poem perfectly. But I don’t think anybody should be criticized because their taste is different from mine. Such poems are extraordinarily deft. There’s a lot of art in them. But I don’t understand where the meat is. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with this kind of poetry. It won’t change my life, so why should I read it? Why should I write it?

By the time some writers—particularly poets—are twenty-seven or twenty-eight they’ve often used up the germinal quality that is their writing, the thing that is their heart. Not for the great poets, but for many poets this is true. The inspiration starts to wane. Many have learned enough to cover that with devices or technique or they just go back and write the same stories about their childhood over and over. It’s why so much poetry feels artificial.

This is just a small sampling of comments on This Business of Writing Poetry. There is much more to be said, much more to be read, more to explore and experience, as a reader and writer of poetry.

I would just add that you should be true and authentic to yourself in all your writing—this is what will ultimately make your work meaningful to you and to your readers.


Eliot, Thomas Stearns. “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, 1919.
Fay, Sarah. “The Art of Poetry No. 91”, The Paris Review interviews, 2005.
Gioia, Dana. Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture, “Can Poetry Matter?” Graywolf, 1992.
Oliver, Mary. Georgia Review, Winter 1981, p. 733.
Rexroth, Kenneth. “The Function of Poetry and the 
Place of the Poet in Society”, 1936. http://www.bopsecrets.org/rexroth/essays/poetry-society.htm


I have been reading a wonderful collection of lectures made by e.e. cummings at Harvard. I have only read a small sampling of cummings’ poetry, but I ran across this small Atheneum publication of what cummings called “six nonlectures” (reprinted by permission from Harvard University Press), delivered as the Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard in 1953.

The lectures talk about cummings’ life and development as an artist. He makes very interesting observations about the role of the poet and trends that he was seeing in the society of his times.

I have been enjoying this small pocket book, but today I am writing about the little surprise I found folded within the later pages of the book. On mint green writing paper, someone had written a poem, using a fountain pen with blue ink. There is no title at the top and neither has the poem’s author identified her or himself.

Here is the poem, in its entirety:

The weather has thrown off its shawl
of wind, of cold, and of rain,
and it’s clothed in garments
of clear and radiant sun.

There isn’t a beast or bird
which in its way doesn’t sing or shout
the weather has thrown off its shawl
of wind, of cold and of rain.

River, fountain and stream
carry prettily
pieces of gold coin,
each one dresses itself anew;
The weather has thrown off its shawl
of wind, of cold and of rain.

What a delight, to have found this little book, in the early days of Spring, only to discover a little poem tucked within its folds!

I cannot help but make the observation that technology does not account for such delights as these.

If you are the author of this poem, let me know who you are—I would love to have a conversation with you about Spring and poetry, fountain pens and books!