On Writing and Poetry

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

  • Maya Angelou

Poetry, whose material is language, is perhaps the most human and least worldly of the arts, the one in which the end product remains closest to the thought that inspired it…. Of all things of thought, poetry is the closest to thought, and a poem is less a thing than any other work of art …

  • Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), U.S. philosopher. The Human Condition, ch. 23 (1958)

THE FUTURE of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry.

  • Matthew Arnold, The Study of Poetry

A poet must never make a statement simply because it sounds poetically exciting; he must also believe it to be true.

  • W. H. Auden

Poetry and progress are like two ambitious men who hate one another with an instinctive hatred, and when they meet upon the same road, one of them has to give place.

  • Charles Baudelaire

Poetry is essentially the antithesis of Metaphysics: Metaphysics purge the mind of the senses and cultivate the disembodiment of the spiritual; Poetry is all passionate and feeling and animates the inanimate; Metaphysics are most perfect when concerned with universals; Poetry, when most concerned with particulars.

  • Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)

Freedom is poetry, taking liberties with words, breaking the rules of normal speech, violating common sense.

  • Norman O. Brown

All poets are mad.

  • Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

Words are like money; there is nothing so useless, unless when in actual use.

  • Samuel Butler

I have nothing to say,
I am saying it,
and that is poetry.

  • John Cage

Reality is not simply there, it must be searched and won.

  • Paul Celan

I thought poems were songs for people with bad voices.

  • Lorna Dee Cervantes

A poem is a machine for making choices.

  • John Ciardi, How Does a Poem Mean

In poetry, in which every line, every phrase, may pass the ordeal of deliberation and deliberate choice, it is possible, and barely possible, to attain that ultimatum which I have ventured to propose as the infallible test of a blameless style; namely: its untranslatableness in words of the same language without injury to the meaning. (Biographia Literaria (1817), ch. 22)

I wish all our clever young poets would remember by homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose equals words in their best order; poetry equals the best words in the best order.

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Nothing good in the world has ever been done by well-rounded people. The good work is done by people with jagged, broken edges, because those edges cut things and leave an imprint, a design.

Writers spend all their time preoccupied with just the things that their fellow men and women spend their time trying to avoid thinking about. ... It takes great courage to look where you have to look, which is in yourself, in your experience, in your relationship with fellow beings, your relationship to the earth, to the spirit or to the first cause—to look at them and make something of them.

  • Harry Crews

Poetry is asking the more beautiful question.

  • ee cummings

You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.

  • Mario Cuomo

Art is the attention we pay to the wholeness of the world.

  • Guy Davenport

Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.

  • Leonardo da Vinci

The poet, like the lover, is a person unable to reconcile what he knows with what he feels. His peculiarity is that he is under a certain compulsion to do so.

Poetry is the fiery index to the genius of the age.

Poetry is important. No less than science, it seeks a Hold upon reality, and the closeness of its approach is the test of its success.

  • Babette Deutsch (1895-1982), U.S. poet. This Modern Poetry, Foreword (1935)

“Poetry’s unnat’ral; no man ever talked poetry ‘cept a beadle on boxin’ day, or Warren’s blackin’ or Rowland’s oil, or some o’ them low fellows; never you let yourself down to talk poetry, my boy.”

  • Charles Dickens (1812-1870), Tony Weller in The Pickwick Papers, ch. 33, p. 452 (1837).

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry.

  • Emily Dickinson

Poetry must have something in it that is barbaric, vast and wild.

  • Denis Diderot (1713-1784) On Dramatic Poetry (1758).

I write to discover what I think.

  • Joan Didion

I am two fools, I know, for loving, and for saying so in whining poetry

  • John Donne

Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful … like a bouillon cube: You carry it around and then it nourishes you when you need it.

  • Rita Dove

If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is a hangover.”

  • Anselm Dovetonsils

Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.

[Poetry] may make us from time to time a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves.

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.

Some editors are failed writers, but so are most writers.

  • T.S. Eliot

The writing of a poem is like a child throwing stones into a mineshaft. You compose first, then you listen for the reverberation.

  • James Fenton

Poetry is as precise a thing as geometry.

  • Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)

Poetry presents indivisible wholes of human consciousness, modified and ordered by the stringent requirements of form. Prose, aiming at a definite and concrete goal, generally suppresses everything inessential to its purpose; poetry, existing only to exhibit itself as an aesthetic object, aims only at completeness and perfection of form.

  • Richard Harter Fogle, U.S. critic, educator.

Poetry is what is lost in translation.

Poetry is a way of taking life by the throat.

I have never started a poem yet whose end I knew. Writing a poem is discovering.

A poem…begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness…It finds the thought and the thought finds the words.

  • Robert Frost

Poetry is the language in which man explores his own amazement … says heaven and earth in one word … speaks of himself and his predicament as though for the first time. It has the virtue of being able to say twice as much as prose in half the time, and the drawback, if you do not give it your full attention, of seeming to say half as much in twice the time.

  • Christopher Fry (b. 1907)

Poetry is the most direct and simple means of expressing oneself in words: the most primitive nations have poetry, but only quite well developed civilizations can produce good prose. So don’t think of poetry as a perverse and unnatural way of distorting ordinary prose statements: prose is a much less natural way of speaking than poetry is. If you listen to small children, and to the amount of chanting and singsong in their speech, you’ll see what I mean.

  • Northrop Frye (1912-1991)

Poetry has become the higher algebra of metaphors.

  • Jose’ Ortega Y Gasset

Sometimes only my brain can talk, and sometimes only my mouth can talk.

  • Laura Gerald

Poetry is a deal of joy and pain and wonder, with a dash of the dictionary.

  • Kahlil Gibran

Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.

Poetry is the one place where people can speak their original human mind. It is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private.

  • Allen Ginsberg

One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.

  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.

  • Vincent van Gogh

Wait until you are hungry to say something, until there is an aching in you to speak.

  • Natalie Goldberg

Reach the dumb
fool the masses

  • Graffiti on Washington Avenue bridge

There’s no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money, either.

  • Robert Ranke Graves

Prose talks and poetry sings.

Prose and poetry are as different as food and drink.

What raises great poetry above all else—it is the entire person and also the entire world.

The spirit of poetry combines the profundity of the philosopher and the child’s delight in bright pictures.

At certain times, men regard poetry merely as a bright flame, but to women it was, and always will be, a warm fire.

Why do comparisons of words and tone poems (poetry and music) never take into consideration that the word is a mere signifier, but that the sound, aside from being a signifier, is also an object?

Poetry, it is often said and loudly so, is life’s true mirror. But a monkey looking into a work of literature looks in vain for Socrates.

  • Franz Grillparzer (1791-1872)

Poetry at its best is the language your soul would speak if you could teach your soul to speak.

  • Jim Harrison (1937-) from “Poetry as Survival” (collected in Just Before Dark)

Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself. He who has a contempt for poetry, cannot have much respect for himself, or for anything else.

  • William Hazlitt (1778-1830), British essayist. Lectures on the English Poets, .On Poetry in General,. (1818).

Poetry resembles painting. Some works will captivate you when you stand very close to them and others if you are at a greater distance. This one prefers a darker vantage point, that one wants to be seen in the light since it feels no terror before the penetrating judgment of the critic. This pleases only once, that will give pleasure even if we go back to it ten times over.

The person who does not know how to play forgoes the athletic equipment in the Campus Martius, and someone who does not know anything about the ball, the discus, or the hoop stays away from the action in order to prevent the packed crowd of spectators from raising their voices in unrestrained laughter: But the person who has no idea how to create poetry still has the audacity to try. Why not? He is a free citizen, and was born that way, and especially because he is both rich (his property assessment places him in the equestrian class) and he has never been convicted of a crime.

If you plan to write poetry, the thoughts concealed within the fox should never deceive you.

Is it nature or art, the question is put, that makes a poem praiseworthy[?]

It is not enough for poems to be “beautiful”; they must also yield delight and guide the listener’s spirit wherever they wish. As human faces laugh with those who are laughing, so they weep with those who are weeping. If you wish me to cry, you must first feel grief yourself, then your misfortunes, O Telephus or Peleus, will injure me. If you speak ineptly assigned words, I shall either sleep or laugh. Sad words are fitting for the gloomy face, words full of threats for the angry one, playful words for the amused face, serious words for the stern one. For Nature first forms us within so as to respond to every kind of fortune. She delights us or impels us to anger or knocks us to the ground and torments us with oppressive grief. Afterward she expresses the emotions of the spirit with language as their interpreter. If, however, there is discord between the words spoken and the fortune of the speaker, Romans, whether cavalry or infantry, will raise their voices in a raucous belly laugh.

Poets wish to either benefit or delight us, or, at one and the same time, to speak words that are both pleasing and useful for our lives. Whatever lessons you teach, let them be brief, so that receptive spirits will quickly perceive and faithfully retain what you have said.

Everything superfluous seeps out of the well-stocked mind.

In order to create pleasure, poetic fictions should approximate reality so that a play should not claim, on its own behalf, that anything it wishes must be believed nor should it extract a living child from the stomach of the ogress, Lamia, after she has dined. The centuries of elders drive away whatever is without serious value; the high and mighty Ramnes keep their distance from gloomy poems. He gets every vote who combines the useful with the pleasant, and who, at the same time he pleases the reader, also instructs him.

  • Horace (65BC-8BC), in ‘Ars Poetica’, Translated by Leon Golden
    in Horace for Students of Literature: The ‘Ars Poetica’ and Its Tradition, (1995).

Poetry, and Picture, are Arts of a like nature; and both are busie about imitation. It was excellently said of Plutarch, Poetry was a speaking Picture, and Picture a mute Poesie. For they both invent, faine, and devise many things, and accommodate all they invent to the use, and service of nature. Yet of the two, the Pen is more noble, than the Pencill. For that can speake to the Understanding; the other, but to the Sense.

  • Ben Jonson (1573-1637), British playwright, poet. Timber, or Discoveries (1640)

In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it’s the exact opposite.

  • Frantz Kafka

Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself, but with its subject.

  • John Keats

Men do not live by truth alone; they also need lies: those that they invent freely, not those that are imposed on them; those that appear as they are, not smuggled in beneath the clothes of history. Fiction enriches their existence, completes them and, fleetingly, compensates them for this tragic condition which is our lot: always to desire and dream more than we can actually achieve.

  • Mario Vargas Llosa

Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.

  • Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,
Dumb
As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—
A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,
Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves.
Memory by memory the mind—
A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.

A poem should be equal to:
Not true.
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—
A poem should not mean
But be.

  • Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982), “Ars Poetica”

Poetry is the heaven of the working reason. Poetry is a divination of the spiritual in the things of sense, which expresses itself in the things of sense, and in a delight of sense. Metaphysics also pursues a spiritual prey, but metaphysics is engaged in abstract knowledge, while poetry quickens art. Metaphysics snatches at the spiritual in an idea, by the most abstract intellection; poetry reaches it in the flesh, by the very point of the sense sharpened through intelligence. Metaphysics enjoys its possession only in the retreats of the eternal regions, while poetry finds its own at every crossroad in the wanderings of the contingent and the singular. The more real the reality, the superreal (I would not give up this word to the Surrealists), the superreal which both seek, metaphysics must attain in the nature of things, while it suffices to poetry to touch it in any sign whatsoever. Metaphysics gives chase to essences and definitions, poetry to any flash of existence glittering by the way, and any reflection of an invisible order.

  • Jacques Maritain (1882-1973), French philosopher

Poetry is a mixture of common sense, which not all have, with an uncommon sense, which very few have.

  • John Masefield

We do not write because we want to; we write because we have to.

  • W. Somerset Maugham (1874 – 1965)

Poetry is like making a joke. If you get one word wrong at the end of a joke, you’??ve lost the whole thing.

  • W.S. Merwin (b. 1928), U.S. poet. Interview. “A Poet of Their Own,”?? The New York Times Magazine (February 19, 1995).

Poetry and eloquence are both alike expression or utterance of feeling. But if we may be excused the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience; the peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet.s utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself, in moments of solitude, and embodying itself in symbols which are the nearest representations of the feeling in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet.s mind. Eloquence is feeling pouring itself to other minds, courting their sympathy, or endeavoring to influence their belief or to move them to passion or to action.

  • John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), British philosopher. .Thoughts on Poetry and Its Varieties,. vol. 1, Dissertations and Discussions (1859).

Poetry and the stock market have a lot in common . . . They are both based on rules that the successful never obey.

  • Arthur Miller in “Resurrection Blues”

Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is go where they can find you.

  • A.A. Milne

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person

  • Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), from “Ars Poetica?”

Poetry should be like fireworks, packed carefully and artfully, ready to explode with unpredictable effects.

  • Lilian Moore

I hate that rule that says write about what you know, it leads to too many British novels about marriages going slightly wrong. Write about what you don’t know, just act as though you do.

  • Jeff Noon (http://www.sensei.co.uk/zeitgeist/noon.html)

I don’t believe in rhythm, assonance, [any] of that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, ‘Give it up! I was a track star.’

  • Frank O’Hara (1926-1966)

Poets are like steam valves, where the ordinary feelings of ordinary people can escape and be shown.

  • Sharon Olds (1942-)

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns … instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.

  • George Orwell

Poetry is not truth:
it is the resurrection of presences.

At times poetry is the vertigo of bodies and the vertigo of joy and the vertigo of death [in Proem, or Proema]

  • Octavio Paz

Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction.

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.

  • Pablo Picasso

The medium of poetry is not words, the medium of poetry is not lines—it is the motion of air inside the human body, coming out through the chest and the voice box and through the mouth to shape sounds that have meaning. It’s bodily.

  • Robert Pinsky

At the touch of love everyone becomes a poet.

  • Plato

I would define poetry as the rhythmical creation of beauty.

I need scarcely observe that a poem deserves its title only inasmuch as it excites, by elevating the soul. The value of the poem is in the ratio of this elevating excitement.

We have taken it into our heads that to write a poem simply for the poem’s sake, and to acknowledge such to have been our design, would be to confess ourselves radically wanting in the true poetic dignity and force: — but the simple fact is that would we but permit ourselves to look into our own souls we should immediately there discover that under the sun there neither exists nor can exist any work more thoroughly dignified, more supremely noble, than this very poem, this poem per se, this poem which is a poem and nothing more, this poem written solely for the poem’s sake.

  • Edgar Allen Poe (these last two from the 1850 essay “The Poetic Principle”)

Means not, but blunders round about a meaning; And he whose fustian’s so sublimely bad, It is not poetry, but prose run mad.

  • Alexander Pope

In the beginnings of our research into narrative we ran up against the inescapable fact that there exists no standard deffinition of narrative in the sense that writers seem to use the word.

  • Rational Geomancy: The Kids of the Book-Machine

Poetry is creative expression; poetry is constructive expression. That, in a sentence, is the real distinction…. In poetry the words are born or re-born in the act of thinking. The words are, in Bergsonian phraseology, a becoming; they develop in the mind pari passu with the development of the thought. There is no time interval between the words and the thought. The thought is the word and the word is the thought, and both the thought and the word are Poetry. “Constructive” implies ready-made materials; words stacked round the builder, ready for use. Prose is a structure of ready-made words. Its “creative” function is confined to plan and elevation—functions these, too, of Poetry, but in Poetry subsidiary to the creative function.

  • Sir Herbert Read (1893-1968), British critic, poet.

poetry does not lack an audience due to a lack of good poets (although poetry, like opera and stand-up, must be sublime in order to avoid being awful), but due to competition. it used to be the only game on the block. now it has to vie with movies and novels and videogames for attention.

  • “The Review” found on an outof-date geocities rant

The poet is truly the thief of fire.

The first task of any man who would be a poet is to know himself completely; he seeks his soul, inspects it, tests it, learns it…Every kind of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself; he exhausts every possible poison so that only essence remains.

  • Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)

Poetry is, above all, an approach to the truth of feeling…. A fine poem will seize your imagination intellectually—that is, when you reach it, you will reach it intellectually too—but the way is through emotion, through what we call feeling.

  • Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980), U.S. poet. The Life of Poetry, ch. 1 (1949).

I write when I can’t not write.

  • Kathee Runo

Poetry is an echo, asking a shadow to dance.

Poetry is the journal of the sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air. Poetry is a search for syllables to shoot at the barriers of the unknown and the unknowable. Poetry is a phantom script telling how rainbows are made and why they go away.

Ordering a man to write a poem is like commanding a pregnant woman to give birth to a red-headed child.

  • Carl Sandburg

Poetry can be criticized only through poetry. A critique which itself is not a work of art, either in content as representation of the necessary impression in the process of creation, or through its beautiful form and in its liberal tone in the spirit of the old Roman satire, has no right of citizenship in the realm of art.

A definition of poetry can only determine what poetry should be and not what poetry actually was and is; otherwise the most concise formula would be: Poetry is that which at some time and some place was thus named.

The poetry of this one is called philosophical, of that one philological, of a third rhetorical, and so on. Which is then the poetic poetry?

  • Friedrich Von Schlegel (1772-1829), German philosopher.

Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it.

Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.

Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.

A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds; his auditors are as men entranced by the melody of an unseen musician, who feel that they are moved and softened, yet know not whence or why.

A poet, as he is the author to others of the highest wisdom, pleasure, virtue, and glory, so he ought personally to be the happiest, the best, the wisest, and the most illustrious of men.

A story of particular facts is a mirror which obscures and distorts that which should be beautiful; poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which it distorts.

Poets are the unacknowledged Legislators of the World. (from “A Defense of Poetry”)

  • Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

A poem is an instant of lucidity in which the entire organism participates.

  • Charles Simic

Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting with the gift of speech.

  • Simonides

Poetry is concerned with using with abusing, with losing
with wanting, with denying with avoiding with adoring
with replacing the noun. It is doing that always
doing that, doing that and doing nothing but that.
Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and
pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns. That is
what poetry does, that is what poetry has to do no
matter what kind of poetry it is. And there are a
great many kinds of poetry.

  • Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), “Poetry and Grammar,” Lectures in America, Random House (1935).

Poetry consists in a rhyming dictionary and things seen.

  • Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)

A poem is a place where the conditions of beyondness and withinness are made palpable, where to imagine is to feel what it is like to be. It allows us to have the life we are denied because we are too busy living. Even more paradoxically, a poem permits us to live in ourselves as if we were just out of reach of ourselves.

  • Mark Strand, from “On Becoming a Poet”

Although we live by strife,
We’re always sorry to begin it,
For what, we ask, is life
Without a touch of Poetry in it?

Hail, Poetry, thou heav’n-born maid!
Thou gildest e’en the pirate’s trade.
Hail, flowing fount of sentiment!
All hail, all hail, divine emollient!

  • Gilbert & Sullivan in Pirates of Penzance

[I write because] I want to live other lives. I’ve never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances. It’s lucky I do it on paper. Probably I would be schizophrenic—and six times divorced—if I weren’t writing.

  • Anne Tayler

The difference between the right and the nearly right word is the same as that between lightening and the lightening bug.

  • Mark Twain

Some atrocity is sure to pop up,
Buttered with enthusiasm
On both sides.
No, write it now
While your head is empty
Like a belly; you’ll be glad
You started off at nothing
So that
Something could arise.

  • Randal VanderMey, “Always Write a Poem Like This”

Whatever our theme in writing, it is old and tired. Whatever our place, it has been visited by the stranger, it will near be new again. It is only the vision that can be new; but that is enough.

  • Eudora Welty

Poets know how useful passion is for publication. Nowadays a broken heart will run to many editions.

  • Oscar Wilde

Never forget that the subject is as important as your feeling; the mud puddle itself is as important as your pleasure in looking at it or splashing through it. Never let the mud puddle get lost in the poetry-because, in many ways, the mud puddle is the poetry.

  • Valerie Worth

There is more music to be found in poetry and in the quiet contemplation of nature, than in studying music itself.

  • john Williams, composer

Poets, like whores, are only hated by each other.

  • William Wycherley, The Country Wife

We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.

  • William Butler Yeats

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