An Author's Assemblage: Brief Notes and Notices

The accumulation of posts to this web page serves merely as an author’s assemblage of brief notes and notices: the collection of informal bits of information, quotations, and observations gathered as one way to display a personal reflection of perceptions on poetry, publication, and related selections of material drawn from my perspectives as a poet or professor of literature and creative writing.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

W.H. Auden on Facts and Beliefs in Poetry

“What makes it difficult for a poet not to tell lies is that, in poetry, all facts and all beliefs cease to be true or false and become interesting possibilities. The reader does not have to share the beliefs expressed in a poem in order to enjoy it. Knowing this, a poet is constantly tempted to make use of an idea or a belief, not because he believes it to be true, but because he sees it has interesting poetic possibilities. It may not, perhaps, be absolutely necessary that he believe it, but it is certainly necessary that his emotions be deeply involved, and this they can never be unless, as a man, he takes it more seriously than as a mere poetic convenience.” From “Writing” in W.H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays (Random House, 1962)

Monday, September 21, 2009

"Major Achievement" in the Poetry of Wallace Stevens

“There is an abstract feature to much of Stevens’s poetry that distinguishes it from that of most other poets. Modern lyric poets, for example, usually write about more tangible topics, often using the first-person singular. One thinks of the speaker contrasting his neighbor’s view of walls with his own in Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall,’ or the persona’s sudden reversal of perspective toward a rather ugly, lice-infested fish in Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish,’ or even the paralyzing insecurity of T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock, dreading a social encounter (‘In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’). Each of these poems has a well-defined speaker and a clear setting. Each invites the reader to identify with or relate to the principal human figure in the poem.

“By contrast, Stevens’s poems frequently seem bizarre, theoretical, and detached. What is one to make of lines such as ‘The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream’; or ‘A. A violent order is disorder; and / B. A great disorder is an order’; or ‘There it was, word for word, / The poem that took the place of a mountain’? In addition, Stevens often employs strange characters, such as the mountain-minded Hoon, Professor Eucalyptus, and Canon Aspirin. He seldom uses the first-person form in his poetry, and when he does, it is likely to be in the plural form of ‘we.’ Although he occasionally chooses the second-person ‘you,’ he usually resorts to an anonymous third-person ‘he’ or ‘she,’ or to the even more remote ‘one.’

“How then do we explain Stevens’s subject and elucidate his greatness as a poet? The answer is simple: His major achievement is the expression of the self in all its amplitude and, in fact, teasingly beyond it. In this respect, he writes in the grand tradition of romantic poetry. Ironically his strategies of distancing—his use of odd characters, his opening philosophical gambits, his impersonal voice—serve to objectify and make authentic deeply personal sources of feeling and thought. To borrow Eliot’s phrase, Stevens’s poems become objective correlatives of various states within the reader, not only of heart and mind but also of being.” —From the “Introduction” to Wallace Stevens: Selected Poems (Knopf, 2009), edited by John N. Serio

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Donald Hall on "The Poetry Reading"

“The poet reads, or croons, or sings; flaps arms, dances, weeps, tells jokes; solemn or hilarious, frightened or confident or both; making the wholly private act of writing the poem into the wholly public act of reading or performing the poem, with the energy created by this conflict, this tension of opposites.

“Or sometimes—I forgot to say—the poet is boring, fatuous, stupid, obscene, drunk, paranoiac, incompetent, or inaudible.

“But when the poet reads well, the gain for poetry is considerable. For the poet, there is the sense that people are really there. The audience responds more tangibly than a letter or a book review. Yeats writes somewhere about feeling discouraged, but finding when he read in a village a young man who carried a battered and loved copy of Yeats’s poems with him.

“More important, the act of reading is the poet’s act of truly publishing his poem—as the syllables waver on the air from poet to listener, and the faces change as the syllables reach them: as the faces laugh and weep, change color, or look away; as eyes flash up, or eyes drop.

“And when we hear a poet read, whom we love, how touched and moved we are, to hear the voice itself pronounce the words we already know.” —From “The Poetry Reading” in Donald Hall’s Goatfoot Milktongue Twinbird: Interviews, Essays, and Notes on Poetry 1970-1976 (University of Michigan Press, 1978)

[View Donald Hall reading his poetry at “One Poet’s Notes”]

Friday, September 18, 2009

James Longenbach on the Resistance to Poetry

“Poets have been on the defensive at least since the time of Plato, and rightly so, since philosophers and literary critics have distrusted poetry. But poems do not necessarily ask to be trusted. Their language revels in duplicity and disjunction, making it difficult for us to assume that any particular poetic gesture is inevitably responsible or irresponsible to the culture that gives the language meaning: a poem’s obfuscation of the established terms of accountability might be the poem’s most accountable act—or it might not. Distrust of poetry (its potential for inconsequence, its pretension to consequence) is the stuff of poetry. And the problem with many defenses of poetry is the refusal to recognize that the enemy lies within.” —From The Resistance to Poetry (University of Chicago Press, 2004) by James Longenbach

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

T.S. Eliot on Language and the Social Function of Poetry

“We may say that the duty of the poet, as poet, is only indirectly to his people: his direct duty is to his language, first to preserve, and second to extend and improve. In expressing what other people feel he is also changing the feeling by making it more conscious; he is making people more aware of what they feel already, and therefore teaching them something about themselves. But he is not merely a more conscious person than the others; he is also individually different from other people, and from other poets too, and can make his readers share consciously in new feelings which they had not experienced before. That is the difference between the writer who is merely eccentric or mad and the genuine poet. The former may have feelings which are unique but which cannot be shared, and are therefore useless; the latter discovers new variations of sensibility which can be appropriated by others. And in expressing them he is developing and enriching the language which he speaks.” From T.S. Eliot’s essay, “The Social Function of Poetry,” in his collection of literary criticism, On Poetry and Poets (Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1957)

Monday, September 14, 2009

On Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight"

“What intrigued and moved me about the poem was its curious suggestion that gloom and loneliness might actually cultivate a sort of luminous affection. Forlorn most of his life, Coleridge was acutely aware of the bliss of human connection. Had he led a life free of suffering he might have never realized the wondrous fullness that comes during a father’s watch over his child’s midnight sleep.

“To be hollow with longing is to be suffused with love. The thirsty person best knows water. Wounded hearts realize the essence of healing.

“These are Coleridge’s exhilarating and strangely hopeful conclusions. They are optimistic because they envision a world in which suffering, inevitable and pervasive as gravity, is not meaningless but rather a source of wisdom. Even in the darkest hell, there persists a consoling light, a light that pulsates all the more forcibly against its murky background.” —From “A Light in Winter,” a New York Times article (9/13/09) by Eric G. Wilson

Thursday, September 10, 2009

C.K. Williams: Admiration of Form in Poetry

“In poetry, formal necessities occur in terms of the movement of the language in its relation to more or less limiting metrical necessities, and then in larger structures of line and stanza, and the various formal organizations such as sonnet, sestina, and the broader conventions, such as elegy or pastoral. The important thing about form, though, is its artificiality. In English poetry, the historically dominant iambic foot is closely related to the actual movement of the voice in our language between stressed and unstressed syllables, but the regularity of the iambic line, and the five beats of the pentameter, for instance, are purely conventional. In regular, or ‘free’ verse, where the cadences are not regular, and not counted, it is what Galway Kinnell has called the ‘rhythmic surge’ that defines and controls the movement of language across its grid of artifice; the line in free verse becomes a much more defining factor of formal organization than in more arithmetical verse-traditions.” —From “Admiration of Form” by C.K. Williams in his book, Poetry and Consciousness (University of Michigan Press, 1998)

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Reginald Gibbons: Forms of Thought in Poetry and Fiction

“The epigram, the elegy, the sonnet, the epic, the isolated perception of the concrete world; the syllabic line, the stanza, the list; an invocation of the Muse or of God, the use of appropriated texts or subjects from historical sources, intertwined narratives, the third-person omniscient point of view, diction as if of someone speaking—all of these and many more artistic devices, amount to forms of thought. Writers call it ‘craft,’ either with a strong sense of studying it the way one studies music, or looking down on it, with the rationale that learning such craft can never guarantee that anyone will write a memorable, or even a good, book. Craft is not what writing is really about, they say. They are right and they are wrong. Those who really do learn such forms of thought often find they have more to say than they had dreamed of, now that they have learned ways of forming thoughts and feelings—or ways that invite thoughts and feelings to form.” —From “Forms of Thought,” a Northwestern University Center for the Writing Arts blog post by Reginald Gibbons

Friday, September 4, 2009

Edward Hirsch on the Sublime in American Poetry

“Ever since Whitman, our poets have been magnetized to the sphere of the American sublime, the engulfing space that Emerson delineates as ‘I and the Abyss,’ the intractable sea that Wallace Stevens confronts in ‘The Idea of Order at Key West,’ which contains a direct echo of Whitman’s poem (‘Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon, / The maker’s rage to order words of the sea.’). This strip of land at the boundary of the fathomless sea is comparable to the liminal space that Robert Frost repeatedly encounters at the edge of the dark wood, the majestic space where, as Emily Dickinson says memorably, ‘The Soul should stand in Awe’ (#683). The feeling of awe bears traces of a holiness galvanized and deepened by the mysterious presence of death. ‘No man saw awe,’ Dickinson also declares in a late poem (#1733). Awe is fateful and sublime, and in American art, as Barnett Newman put it in a 1948 essay, ‘The Sublime Is Now.’ It is a space for schooling the spirit. It is America.” —From “The Sublime Is Now,” an essay in Edward Hirsch’s The Demon and the Angel: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration (Harcourt, 2002)

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Robert Hass on the Haunting Power of Images

“Images haunt. There is a whole mythology built on this fact: Cezanne painting till his eyes bled, Wordsworth wandering the Lake Country hills in an impassioned daze. Blake describes it very well, and so did the colleague of Tu Fu who said to him, ‘It is like being alive twice.’ Images are not quite ideas, they are stiller than that, with less implication outside themselves. And they are not myth, they do not have that explanatory power; they are nearer to pure story. Nor are they always metaphors; they do not say this is that, they say this is. In the nineteenth century one would have said that what compelled us about them was a sense of the eternal. And it is something like that, some feeling in the arrest of the image that what perishes and what lasts forever have been brought into conjunction, and accompanying that sensation is a feeling of release from the self. Antonio Machado wrote, ‘Hoy es siempre todavĂ­a.’ Yet today is always. And Czeslaw Milosz, ‘Tylko trwa wieczna chwila.’ Only the moment is eternal.” —From “Images,” an essay in Twentieth Century Pleasures (Ecco, 1984) by Robert Hass

[To read more by Robert Hass about “Images,” visitors are encouraged to also view a post at “One Poet’s Notes”: “Robert Hass: Imagination and the Image,” which includes a video of Hass speaking.]


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