Quotes & Notes

"Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal." --T.S. Eliot

“By necessity, by proclivity and by delight we all quote. It is as difficult
to appropriate the thoughts of others as it is to invent.”
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

Quote Poet Unquote
Finding Meaning, Values & Community in Poetry
New York City Haiku

Quote Poet Unquote

Poetic protophilosophy & epiphenomena to pack in your pipe and smoke.
Mostly from Quote Poet Unquote, edited by Dennis O'Driscoll, Copper Canyon Press, 2008

Poetry Is... The Truth of Poetry
A Poet's Job Prose v. Poetry
Writing Audience
Reality Ambivalence & Ambition
Formal & Free Verse I The I in My Poems
Formal & Free Verse II Accessibility
Formal & Free Verse III Verbosity
The Poet's Nature What Poetry Makes Happen
I'm Embarassed to Say I'm a Poet Translation & Anthology
Good Poetry From Bad War, Prayer & Poetry
A Career in Poetry Language, History & Chemistry
It Does Not Take All Day to Be a Poet Metaphor, Meter & Rhyme
The Poetry Community The Purpose of Poetry


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Poetry Is...

"Poetry is language at its most nourishing. It's the breast milk of language."
--Robert Crawford, The South Bank Show, October 1994

"Poetry is a dividend from what you know and what you are."
--Czeslaw Milosz, Poets & Writers, November-December 1993

"Poetry is an act by which the relation of words to reality is renewed."
--Yves Bonnefoy, Times Literary Supplement, 12 August 2005

"Poetry is an investigation, not an expression, of what you know."
--Mark Doty, The Cortland Review, October 2000

"
Poetry is not a matter of feelings, it is a matter of language. It is language that creates feelings."
--Umberto Ecco, The Independent, 6 October 1995

"Poetry is a fire, well banked-down that it may warm survivors in the even-colder nights to come."
--Hugh Maxton, Dedalus Irish Poets, 1992

"Poetry is the language of intensity. Because we are going to die, an expression of intensity is justified." --C.D. Wright

"Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits."
--Carl Sandburg

"Poetry is philosophy's sister, the one that wears make-up."
--Jennifer Grotz, Here Comes Everybody, April 2005

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A Poet's Job

"Poetry models something which probably all humans do. Their poetries don't usually come to fruition or get embodied as words on a page. They come out as ideologies, political systems, inventions, cars, marriages, all sorts of things like that."
--Les Murray, BBC Radio 4

"A poet's job is to find a name for everything."
--Jane Kenyon, A Hundred White Daffodils, 1999

"Poetry is an embarassing affair; it is born too near to the functions we call intimate."
--Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog, 1998

"Lyrics can lift one's heart, prose can make one think, and speeches can move one to action. Poetry can do all three."
--Robyn Hammer-Clarey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 25 May 2003

"Poetry is there in a crisis, the power cut, the sudden bereavement, the dictatorship."
--Ruth Padel, The Independent, 18 July 1997

"Poetry fills a human appetite: it matters the way cuisine matters beyond nutrition, or lovemaking matters beyond procreation. Like music and dance, it is at the center of human intelligence."
--Robert Pinsky, Newsweek, 12 April 2004

"The personal lyric is omnipresent in human cultures because it serves an essential function: to assist in the survival of individuals as they undergo existential crises."
--Gregory Orr, The American Poetry Review, May-June 2002

"Poetry is everywhere; it just needs editing."
--James Tate, The Route as Briefed, 1999

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Writing

"My optimum time to write is when I don't have much to say, as opposed to when I was young and had plenty to say about everything. My poetry was liberated by that realization. I got better right away."
--Billy Collins, The Exeter News, 6 May 2005

"I never save my 'big' ideas for down the road. I start with the big idea and see how much further I can go."
--Paul Muldoon, The Paris Review, Spring 2004

"Unless you're riding some current that's bigger than just your reporting voice, you can't get started."
--Seamus Heaney, RTE Radio 1, September 1997

"A properly written poem should have, implicit in its writing, the best indications as to how it should be read--how it should be interpreted is another matter, but the plainest pointer to how it should be read, built into the text, is what makes a poem a poem."
--James Fenton, The Guardian, 31 March 2007

"Rivers invite bridges, tall buildings elevators, and an exciting and unexplained world invites poetry."
--Kenneth Koch, Making Your Own Days, 1998

"My best poems present a 'me' that's really an individual superior to me: calm in the face of dreadful things, wise beyond my years, etc. If that's not being inspired, I don't know what is."
--Philip Levine, The Kenyon Review, Spring 1999

"Meaning is destroyed by readers who take one's subject to be one's 'subject matter,' as if the subject exists only for the poem."
--Wendell Berry, Standing on Earth, 1991

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Reality

"There are no simplistic rules for poets: if there were, any duffer could write poetry. There are, however, rules of thumb, and one of the best is that getting the focus off yourself gives you the best chance of tapping your personal experience."
--Clive James, Poetry, February 2007

"If you write about what you know, you will keep on writing the same thing, and you will never know any more than you do now."
--George Bowering, The Iowa Review, Winter 2003-04

"It is often preferable to take your subjects from life or even from newspapers . . . than to construct mysterious fantasies at one remove from reality. There's always enough to write about; indeed, there's too much."
--Gavin Ewart, The Guardian

"You need reality to make the imagination do interesting things, to renew itself. Take the reality out of the equation and you simply repeat yourself."
--Charles Simic, The Irish Times, 23 July 2005

"There's no preparation for poetry. Four years of grave digging with a nice volume of poetry or a book of philosophy in one's pocket would serve as well as any university."
--Charles Simic, The Paris Review, Spring 2005

"It is almost eerie, the number of people who want to be poets."
--Louise Gluck, The New York Times, 29 August 2003

"It took time for me to understand that everybody, in the end, generates his or her own ecosystem as a writer. And, if you don't, nobody else is going to give it to you."
--Eavan Boland, The New Yorker, 26 October 2001

"The nobility of poetry, says Wallace Stevens, 'is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without.' It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality."
--Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry

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Formal & Free Verse I

"The world is full of poets with languid wrenches who don't bother to take the last six turns on their bolts."
--X.J. Kennedy, Seneca Review, Vol. 21 No. 2

"Poetry, whether it is a free verse howl, cyclonic pantoum, nuclear sonnet or double-barreled sporophyll disguised as a prose poem, has this one quality about it: it is alive. It spits, sputters, spins. It ambles forward angry and confused, chased by frightened villagers. It breaches in the ocean a thunderous hulk white and marvelous."
--John Olson, Verse, 10 April 2006

"The problem with most free verse is it locates wisdom in the self and not in the language."
--Glyn Maxwell, Bloodaxe Books, 1995

"Good formalism . . . requires the poet to think with form and not just with ideas."
--Justin Quinn, Graph, Spring 1998

"The preferred form for many poets is incoherence. Unassigned signifiers are let loose in a cloud of unknowing, in such a way as to seem to be a flight from voice, because voice implies both personality and responsibility."
--Mark Jarman, The Hudson Review, Summer 2006

"Form is any aspect of a poem that encourages it to stay whole and not drift off into chaos."
--Billy Collins, Fulcrum, No. 4 2005

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Formal & Free Verse II

"The iambic pentameter--the most typical metre in English verse--weaves together freedom and order, flexibility and regularity, the distinctive tones of an individual with an impersonal structure. This, among other things, is an idealized view of what is peculiar about English civilization."
--Terry Eagleton, The Times, 27 January 2007

"Form was never a mode of civilization. Nor was it ever, nor will it ever be, a mode of evading disorder. On the contrary, it is a method of engaging it without yielding to its prescriptions."
--Eavan Boland, PN Review

"Free verse is very exciting. But it is only exciting in the way it plays off the expectations developed by meter."
--August Kleinzahler, BBC Radio 3, July 1995

"To talk about formal verse is meaningless--poetry is form."
--Robert Pinsky, PN Review, September-October 1998

"Poetry has to be embodied, just as we come in bodies. We're not pure spirit. The form is the poem's way of carrying itself, of being in the world, of incarnating the spirit."
--Edward Hirsch, Five Points, Vol. 4 No. 2

"Think of learning poetic forms as acquiring the tools of your trade, which you may or may not choose to employ. A carpenter doesn't always use a drill, though it would be disastrous for him not to know that it exists for him, and might facilitate what he wants to accomplish."
--Stephen Dunn, Smartish Pace, 2004

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Formal & Free Verse III

"Form is a straitjacket in the way that a straitjacket was a straitjacket for Houdini."
--Paul Muldoon, The Irish Times, 19 April 2003

"While it is true that we are initially drawn to poems by their passions, their questions, and their tonal urgencies, we are convinced by them, finally, insofar as they can invent formal means for their impelling motives."
--Helen Vendler, The Breaking of Style, 1995

"Without an awareness of structure and form, personal experience remains hermetically personal, and political comment comes over as crass polemic."
--Sarah Maguire, Poetry Review, Spring 1994

"Form cannot be first if you want to reach high artistic levels, since you are then bound by form, and that form is very often a betrayal of reality. It cannot grasp reality."
--Czeslaw Milosz, Partisan Review, Summer 1996

"A poet is revealed less in his subject matter, however personal, than in his rhythms--just as a painter is most truly revealed in his brushstroke."
--Adam Kirsch, The Wounded Surgeon, 2005

"When you rhyme, you're somehow engaging with something that's older than you are, that's older than your history, that's older than anything you really understand or experience. You engage with a source of power...."
--Glyn Maxwell, Atlantic Unbound, 14 June 2001

"Formalism, in itself, is a fetish: specific forms only become interesting when the pressure inside them is on the point of breaking them up."
--George Szirtes, Poetry Book Society Bulletin, Winter 2004

"When a poem rhymes, when a form generates itself, when a metre provokes consciousness into new postures, it is already on the side of life. When a rhyme surprises and extends the fixed relations between words, that in itself protests against necessity."
--Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry

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The Poet's Nature

"Human failings may be forgivable, but if a lack of compassion, meanness of spirit, envy or cowardice are present in the poet's nature they will be evident in his verse. You cannot fake anything if you are trying to write serious poetry."
--Elizabeth Jennings, The Independent

"For a poet to be great we must find ourselves repelled by some part of the poet's work. Not just mildly disquieted but actively repelled...There must be a crack in the poet of some sort. It has to be deep, privately potent, and unmendable--and the poet must forever try to mend it."
--Kay Ryan, The Yale Review, April 2004

"Much of our mainstream poetry is confined by an ethic of sincerity and the unstated wish to be admired (if not admired, liked; if not liked, sympathized with). American poetry still largely believes...that a poem is straightforward autobiographical testimony to, among other things, the decency of the speaker."
--Tony Hoagland, The American Poetry Review, March-April 2003

"Poetry has its own life, with only an ambiguous connection to the life of the person who writes it."
--Adam Kirsch, The Wounded Surgeon, 2005

"Milton says, that the lyric poet may drink wine and live generously, but the epic poet, he who shall sing of the gods, and their descent unto men, must drink water out of a wooden bowl."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Poet

"Either we have hope within us or we don't; it is a dimension of the soul, and it's not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. . . It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somwhere beyond its horizons. . . It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."
--Vaclav Havel, Disturbing the Peace

"Inside every poet there lurks a mad-eyed statistician."
--John Banville, NY Review of Books, 9/24/15

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I'm Embarassed to Say I'm a Poet

"Anyone who begins a sentence 'as a poet I' is probably not a poet. It's like calling yourself a saint."
--Michael Longley, Colby Quarterly, September 2003

"Poetry makes some kind of claim of honesty. If, at a party, I say I'm a poet, people have a hard time responding, almost as if I'd said I'm a priest."
--Tobias Hill, The Independent, 9 August 2003

"When asked what I do, I try just to say I'm a writer, because telling people you're a poet compels them to go into nervous detail about why they neither read nor understand it."
--Lavinia Greenlaw, The Guardian, 20 December 2003

"I'm embarrassed to tell people, still, that I'm a poet...because I don't like poets. They're creeps. Some of my best friends are poets, but they're adult children, almost without exception. And the level of self-involvement is such that it's really a wonder, when they're stationary, the floorboards don't give way."
--August Kleinzahler, Poets & Writers, October 2003

"If someone on a train asked me what I did for a living, I'd say I was a tax inspector, rather than a poet. I'm shy about it."
--Douglas Dunn, The Irish Times, 20 May 2000

"I'm still embarrassed to say I'm a poet. I say I'm a writer and sometimes I say I work for the Inland Revenue, which kills the conversation. To say you're a poet is even worse."
--Don Paterson, The Independent, 9 January 2004

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Good Poetry From Bad

"The best collections are those with a roughly equal measure of intellect, heart and guts, and they aren't plentiful."
--Sheenagh Pugh, Poetry Review

"Whereas good poetry has easily recognizable truth and beauty, great poetry strains at the limits of both thought and expression--it doesn't stop at the usual safe terminals."
--Cal Bedient, Denver Quarterly, Vol. 39 No. 2 2004

"It is a rare thing to write a poem which will matter to anybody fifty years down the line, but poets keep writing anyway, because in order for pure-strain poems or hybrid-delight poems which matter to emerge, there must first be thousands of common-or-garden specimens to secure a habitat for poetry in the first place."
--Mary O'Donnell, Irish University Review, Autumn-Winter 1995

"My own sense of putting together a selection of poetry is to avoid perfection, not to necessarily edit out some of the weaker or goofier stuff, because that has some interesting merit of its own."
--Gary Snyder, Poets & Writers, May-June 1995

"The things that distinguish good poetry from bad are an invincible rhythm, a mastery of construction, a thesaurus of cultural imagery, arresting linguistic vitality."
--Helen Vendler, The New York Times, 18 June 1995

"Many are called but few, very few, are chosen; it is a lesson that we are happy to learn about everybody's lifetime except our own."
--Donald Davie, Agenda: An Anthology, 1994

"Only publish what you know is as good as it can ever be, allowing always for a sort of private footnote that it's still not good enough. Then you might be getting somewhere toward the correct view of how to live as a poet."
--Ian Hamilton, London Review of Books, 21 February 2002

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A Career in Poetry

"As with any other product, there is no innate justice in the marketing and consumption of poetry."
--Clive James, Times Literary Supplement

"People don't read poetry because poetry is not as widely available as trash, or as thrillers. If I were a publisher, a publisher concerned for poetry (which is a rare bird to find!), I would publish anthologies that would be sold in supermarkets. You never know what people buy in supermarkets!"
--Joseph Brodsky, Vogue, February 1988

"I have never been one of the people who feel it essential to increase the audience for poetry. I feel that the people who need it find it."
--Louise Gluck, Lannan Readings & Conversations, 16 February 2005

"Poets can do without much money and that's a good thing...Poets have much more aesthetic freedom precisely because nobody cares how or what they write. That freedom is priceless."
--James Longenbach, The Boston Globe, 8 January 2006

"To be reading your poetry as a breadwinning activity...commits some sin against the freedom of poetry. I do believe that poetry is in the realm of the gift and in the realm of the sacred."
--Seamus Heaney, The Christian Science Monitor, 9 January 1989

"The hope of permanent fame may be the second-silliest motive for a career in poetry; the first is, of course, the hope for riches."
--Joseph Epstein, The Weekly Standard, 2003

"I write as good as I can, and don't try to turn that into some hope for a future that I could never know. I've had some people tell me that they knew they were great and that they would live in literature forever, and my response is to pat them on the back and say 'Maybe you'll feel better tomorrow.'"
--Donald Hall, National Public Radio, 6 December 2014

"A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down. If it is a good book, nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book, nothing can help him."
--Edna St. Vincent Millay

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It Does Not Take All Day to Be a Poet

"It may well be the unprofessional aspects of poetry--good poets come from all sorts of backgrounds and do every kind of job--that keeps the art strong."
--Boyd Tonkin, New Statesman, 7 January 1994

"It does not take all day to be a poet and I have never understood the contentions of those eccentrics who think that a poet should not have to earn his living like the next man. Human nature is certainly not less noticeable in the ordinary world of work than it is to the genius who fancies solitude."
--C.H. Sisson, PN Review, November-December 1994

"Even a moderately interesting job outside the poetry workshop business is more likely to yield high poetic dividends than unlimited leisure or a work life confined to cajoling guileless youths into believing they are our next Rimbauds."
--Thomas M. Disch, Parnassus, Vol. 20 No. 1

"Sad to say, the academy has not been a healthy home for writers. They end up overeducated and underexperienced. My advice to young poets? Work anywhere else. Write anything, but write from the heart."
--Judith Kitchen, The Georgia Review, Spring 2006

"The less a poet's job has to do with poetry the better...My work as a journalist doesn't get in the way of my poems. And it's the journalism which keeps bread on the table and keeps me in the street, where poems start."
--Sean Dunne, RTE Radio 1

"I've never wanted to live in a poetry-obsessed world. You need other things in your life and from the start I set out to make sure that poetry was never my primary activity."
--James Fenton, Financial Times, 7 November 1998

"The poetry forged in what we might consider to be genuinely hefty experience--manual labor, for example--can also easily become its own template or formula: something just as easily repeatable as the oft-lamented 'academic' poem."
--Christina Pugh, Poetry, June 2005

"The thing about writing is that, if you have the impulse, you will find the time."
--Seamus Heaney, RTE 1 Television, December 1995

"Breathe-in experience, breathe-out poetry."
--Muriel Rukeyser

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The Poetry Community

"Lovers of poetry may total a million people on the whole planet. Fewer than the players of skat."
--Les Murray, Conscious and Verbal, 1999

"The unpopularity of poetry at present...is in some ways an advantage to both poetry and society as a whole. As poetry has exited from society, so to speak, it has acquired the right of hermits and other loners to be itself."
--David Perkins, Harvard Review, Fall 1995

"Writing for any audience is the wrong way to win one...Rather, a poet should be writing to an audience--one listener or many--the poet's own soul, or an ideal reader, or a nation."
--A.E. Stallings, Poetry, April 2005

"Like subsidized farming that grows food no one wants, a poetry industry has been created to serve the interests of the producers and not the consumers."
--Dana Gioia, Can Poetry Matter?, 1992

"Poetry is an endeavor so large and so deeply communal that if one person doesn't write a great poem, eventually somebody else will."
--Jane Hirshfield, RTE Lyric FM, October 2005

"We're never alone when writing a poem. Pick up your pen, and you're in dialogue with all the writing you've been touched by."
--Philip Gross, Magma Poetry, Winter 2005

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The Truth of Poetry

"The truth of poetry is not a party truth, not even a moral truth, but a truth about the real nature of existence. Furthermore it is a discovered truth, a truth discovered through the truth of language, a truth the writer does not fully know at the time of writing."
--George Szirtes, 25 April 2005

"There are degrees of fidelity to the actual. I don't know a single poet who would hesitate at locating, say, a spousal argument in Paramus instead of Princeton if that change better served the poem's sonics."
--Stephen Dunn, After Confession, 2001

"Poems know something that we as the creators of poems don't know. This may just be the force of a thing that is finished compared to one that is still developing, the force of order in contrast to disorder, the force of something elevated out of time compared to the casual."
--Agnes Nemes Nagy, A Hungarian Perspective, 1998

"Once you've written a line on the page, that poem has its own lifeforce that needs to be realized. It now becomes utterly irrelevant what really happened."
--Campbell McGrath, Sundog, Fall 1999

"I've adapted the principle of our legal system, of presuming innocent until proven guilty, to this: That we should presume that details in a poem are literal until proved figurative."
--Alan Shapiro, Rattle, Summer 2005

"One of the most revealing questions you can ask about any poet has to do with his sense of responsibility. To whom or what does he hold himself responsible in his writing? The poet who replies 'Nothing'--who believes that the concept of responsibility is foreign to the totally free realm of art--is likely to be a bad poet."
--Adam Kirsch, Harvard Magazine, November-December 2006

"In a good poem as in a good marriage not everything is said."
--David Burnett, Quoins for the Chase, 2003

"Sometimes I have been tempted even to describe poets as 'matchmakers' between words that have been kept apart, but which now, in a poem, consummate their festive union."
--Eric Ormsby, Facsimiles of Time, 2001

"Poetry. . . whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and out of which it is generated. . . As long as the coordinates of the imagined thing correspond to those of the world that we live in and endure, poetry is fulfilling its counterweighting function."
Seamus Heaney, The Redress of Poetry

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Prose v. Poetry

"People in love or in mourning do feel that they must rise to a big occasion, when they must use the best language there is. Ordinary prose, which is used for instructions on how to clean the cooker and so forth, won't do."
--U.A. Fanthorpe, The Guardian, 13 February 1999

"The main difference between poetry and prose is that, dreadful though it is, poetry doesn't go on for nearly so long."
--"Bookworm", Private Eye, 3 December 1993

"Narrative writing helps to develop logical thinking, poetic writing to enhance analogical thinking."
          --Eduardo Jaramillo Munoz, Reading and Writing Poetry, 2005

"Poetry is in some ways lordly or aristocratic: It gets bored more easily than prose, it likes to skip steps, and it is very interested in pleasure. The rectangular blocks of print embodying its young, middle-class nephew, the novel, seem too confining for poetry, which prefers speed and glamour."
--Robert Pinsky, The Washington Post, 26 June 2005

"Why has the experimentalism of the avant-garde, which has failed in the novel, succeeded in poetry? Because poetry is always experimental; while the novel, on the contrary, by its nature, cannot be...Which is to say that experimentalism is synonymous with poetry and that, applied to the novel, it leads simply to the substitution of the novel with poetry."
--Alberto Moravia, The Threepenny Review

"Fiction requires willpower; poetry requires the abdication of willpower."
--Margaret Atwood, BBC Radio 3, August 1993

"With a lyric poem, you look, and meditate, and put the rock back. With fiction you poke things with a stick to see what will happen."
--Margaret Atwood, The New York Times, 18 May 1997

" . . . Don't make the mistake of thinking the white sheet is nothing. It's nothing for your novelist, your journalist, your blogger. For those folk it's a tabula rasa, a giving surface. For a poet it's half of everything. If you don't know how to use it you are writing prose. If you write poems that you might call free and I might call unpatterned then skillful, intelligent use of the whiteness is all you've got. Put more practically, line-break is all you've got, and if you don't master line-break--the border between poetry and prose--then you don't know there is a border."

--Glyn Maxwell, On Poetry

"The other half of everything for the songwriters is music. For the poets it's silence, the space, the whiteness. I think our gig is harder. Their enemy reaches out, plays chords, goes hey we could be friends if you play your cards right. Our enemy simply waits, like it knows the arts of war. Bob Dylan and John Keats are at different work. It would be nice never to be asked this again."
--Glyn Maxwell, On Poetry

"What destroys the poetry of a city? Automobiles destroy it, and they destroy more than the poetry."
--Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poetry Flash, November 1998

"Language is like a car able to go two hundred miles an hour but which is restricted by the traffic laws of prose to a reasonable speed. Poets are fond of accelerating."
--Kenneth Koch, The New York Review of Books, 14 May 1998

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Audience

"For the 'audience,' listening to poets, rather than reading poems, prevents a full experience of the complexity, the substance, the music of verse. The poem is always only what the poet wrote down on the page. Everything else is show business."
--Adam Kirsch, Slate, 4 December 2001

"Aren't the persuasions of poetry private? To my mind, the right sized room to hear poetry is my head, the words speaking from the page."
--Kay Ryan, Poetry, July-August 2005

"I loathe any kind of verse that is aimed at stock responses in poetry audiences especially what...I have come to call the titter of recognition."
--Michael Hamburger, Testimonies, 1989

"Anything will do in performance poetry, so long as it is properly signalled and allows the poem to go up in a puff of laughter. After a while you don't care what you say so long as it gets that little orgasmic squirt."
--Hugo Williams, Times Literary Supplement, 20 January 2006

"It's never good for the ego to travel two thousand miles to give a reading to seven people. I have a keen enough sense of my own irrelevance; I don't need to have it dramatized to me by having no one show up to hear me read."
--Alan Shapiro, Rattle, Summer 2005

"There are writers of verse--now, more than ever--who, before an audience, chant or drone or strut or mince or yammer or harangue, but very few can read their work so as to keep their listeners constantly aware of the beauty of sense, however complex, and the sense of beauty arising from the powerful, delicate, and compelling ways in which that sense is made by poetry."
--John Hollander, Poetry, September 1995

"I love being on the road. One night you read to 1,000 people. Next night you change trains three times to go to a little place where you hear a church bell chiming the hour, and walk up the street to the pub and have a fabulous half of ale, and an unusual stranger fetches you to read to 12 people who've prepared a huge buffet, and they are all having affairs with each other's husbands and write verses themselves."
--Carol Ann Duffy, The Times, 16 October 2004

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Ambivalence & Ambition

"No one writes without being aware that readers come to any new text, as it were, with pistol cocked and an interrogator's scowl: 'Does this bard have anything to say that I have to listen to, or can I just terminate proceedings right now?'"
--Alfred Corn, Poetry, February 1993

"Poetry...has outsourced ambition to the novel, thought to philosophy and conceptual art, political analysis to the press, introspection to psychology, and feeling to Hallmark and the music and movie industries."
--Trevor Joyce, RTE Lyric FM, June 2007

"Even in the poetry of the most profound sorrow and lament, if the work is of the highest order, there is always somewhere--if you look for it--a lift in the words, an element of praise, a singing line."
--Paul Murray, Logos, Summer 2005

"A poem's every line conceals the sufferings of Cambodia and Auschwitz...Every line also holds a spring day's joy. Tragedy and joy collide in every line."
--Adam Zagajewski, A Defense of Ardor, 2004

"Poetry provides a safe home for ambiguity and ambivalence. Any poem which sets out to be merely amusing or merely sincere fails to take advantage of poetry's strange duplicity."
--Billy Collins, Poetry Book Society Bulletin, Spring 2003

"This new enthusiasm for poetry among the young, if it exists, has another, sadder explanation: they have lost the ability to communicate in prose."
--Auberon Waugh, The Literary Review, June 1994

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The I in My Poems

"By and large I prefer not to tinker with past efforts: this resembles denting cold metal that was red-hot in another life."
--Michael Longley, Collected Poems, 2006

"More bilge, to put it politely, gets written with and through ambition than perhaps any other quality...You need a pure heart, a good ear, and a wicked vocabulary. That's my prescription."
--Michael Hofmann, Poetry, June-July 2004

"You take your poems seriously, but you don't take yourself seriously. What the muse hates more than anything is self-importance."
--Michael Longley, The Observer, 29 October 2006

"To promote the poet rather than the poem is to sin against the muse. Revenge is likely to take the shape of writer's block!"
--Biddy Jenkinson, The Leonard L. Milberg Collection of Irish Poetry, 1998

"The only reason you write about yourself is that this is what you know best..And if you knew anybody else as well as you know yourself, you would write about that other."
--Stanley Kunitz, Interviews and Encounters with Stanley Kunitz, 1993

"We are all interested in our own poems, just as we are interested in the smell of our own armpits, because they are uniquely redolent of ourselves. We are not, for converse reasons, much interested, as a rule, in the slapdash maunderings of other people."
--Editorial, The Spectator, 23 September 2000

"The difference between the kind of poetry in which an 'I' tells about itself and a poetry which 'sings gods and heroes' is not great, since in both cases the object of description is mythologized."
--Czeslaw Milosz, Road-side Dog, 1998

*                  *                  *                  *                  *
Accessibility

"Any fool can write an obscure poem...To write clearly and still express interesting things is fiendishly difficult."
--Norman MacCaig, The Sunday Tribune, 17 January 1988

"Poetry has to be brave enough to risk the chance of death by mediocrity when the alternative is certain extinction through wilful academic obscurity."
--Neil Powell, PN Review

"As far as I can tell, there are two kinds of poets: those who want to tell stories and sing songs, and those who want to work out the chemical equation for language and pass on their experiments as poetry."
--Simon Armitage, Short and Sweet, 1999

"It is no denigration of a poem to say that it resists its audience for a while."
--Seamus Heaney, RTE Radio I

"Whenever an undeniably original poet appears--Mallarme, Eliot, Moore, Milosz, Ashbery--no matter how alien the content, or how allusive the lines, readers flock to the poems. 'Accessibility' needs to be dropped from the American vocabulary of aesthetic judgement if we are not to appear fools in the eyes of the world."
--Helen Vendler, The New Republic, 28 February 2005

"I see woefully obscure poetry as simply a kind of verbal rudeness."
--Billy Collins

"If some young poets were as watchful about needless obscurity as they are about needless sentimentality you might have heard of them."
--Glyn Maxwell, On Poetry

"There's too much lukewarm irony, too much sophisticated indulgence. The tragic dimension disappears in this intellectual environment. That's why ardor is to be defended."
--Adam Zagajewski, Poets & Writers, August 2004

"Robert Frost suggested that one could hear a conversation in the next room, muffled through a wall, make out not a single clear word, and yet still understand what's going on. He calls it the 'sound of sense' and it's as much sense as I've ever read anywhere."
--Glyn Maxwell, On Poetry

*                  *                  *                  *                  *
Verbosity

"How does a reader deal with 120 pages of poetry written over a two- to three-year period? When I read Amy Clampitt or Derek Walcott in large doses, I hear Elias Canetti whispering 'One should fear words more.' It is as if they wanted language to take the place of the world."
--Mark Rudman, The New York Times

"Most poets write and publish far too much. They forget the agricultural good sense of the fallow period. The Muse despises whiners who bellyache about 'writer's block' and related ailments."
--Michael Longley, Colby Quarterly, September 2003

"The more one reads poetry, the less tolerant one becomes of any sort of verbosity, be that in political or philosophical discourse, be that in history, social studies or the art of fiction."
--Joseph Brodsky, The New York Times, 12 June 1988

"Having a 'style' for so many artists is like having a chronic condition whose symptoms crop up predictably, season to season, year to year."
--Dan Chiasson, Ploughshares, Winter 2006-07

"Poetry in my view is a defense of the individual against all the forces arrayed against him."
--Charles Simic, The Paris Review, Spring 2005

"You start from the wrong place with political poetry, because you start by knowing too much, and so what you're likely to write is propaganda."
--
W.S. Merwin, The Irish Times, 20 March 2004

"You can spend a lifetime, twenty-five years, in a concentration camp or you can survive a bombardment of Hiroshima and yet not produce a single line, whereas a one-night stand gives birth to an immortal lyric."
--
Joseph Brodsky, Poetry Ireland Review, Winter 1992-93

*                  *                  *                  *                  *
What Poetry Makes Happen

"Auden's famous assertion that 'poetry makes nothing happen' is usually taken to be a statement about the ineffectual nature of the poetic enterprise. This view presupposes that making something happen is better than making nothing happen. But is this so?"
--
John Brehm, Good Times, 11 August 2005

"Each person is on this Earth to make sense of themselves and for themselves and to bring the inchoateness of this self into an expressible state. These are the essential and redemptive steps of poetry."
--
Seamus Heaney, Salon

"At present, only some forms of advanced science--particle physics for example--allow a young mind to experience the paradox, ambiguity, irrational thought, associative 'leaping' any good poem teaches us to think and feel in. It opens those synapses in the brain. It always has. Once open, such minds can think differently in any field."
--
Jorie Graham, American Poet, Fall 1996

"When we think about Goethe--as when we consider any major writer--we are looking for hints on how to live. Keeping the house clean, arranging the kitchen cupboards and balancing the books, all have their real dignity illuminated by Goethe's loving regard."
--Astrida Orle Tantillo, Chicago Tribune, 28 January 2007

"The rhythms of music and the rhythms of poetry have little in common...In the end, the music of poetry must be understood as no more than a metaphor struck off in the heat of wishful thought."
--Donald Justice, Oblivion, 1998

"The worlds of jazz music and poetry have this much in common: the acceptance-winning poet or jazz musician both have to be the best of their kind in an intensely competitive world, where nothing less than the highest order of technique and invention will do. The audience for this brilliance is small, fickle and intensely critical."
--John Hartley Williams, Poetry Wales, October 2003

"Your relationship with poetry is what it is. You like what you like. It means to you what it means. It isn't a test."
--British comedian Robert Webb, featured in the BBC2 program, "My Life in Verse"

"The taste of the apple (states Berkeley) lies in the contact of the fruit with the palate, not in the fruit itself; in a similar way (I would say) poetry lies in the meeting of poem and reader, not in the lines of symbols on pages of a book. What is essential is . . . the thrill, the almost phyical emotion that comes with each reading."
Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Poems 1923-1967

*                  *                  *                  *                  *
Translation & Anthology

"There are probably at this moment in this country more than a hundred lyric poets writing between the ages of 22 and 67 who are all capable of greatness and who have all written individual poems that are astonishing in their beauty and originality. So, I think, it's very possible that what we're experiencing is a Golden Age of American poetry."
--Norman Dubie, The American Poetry Review, November-December 1989

"Poets have a responsibility to write serious reviews and essays about their contemporaries, even when the prospect seems daunting. Call it literary jury service."
--Joel Brouwer, Harvard Review, Spring 1997

"It is one of the bitter truths of life that all poetry, whether great or less great, is untranslatable. Whereas music is universal, each good poem is ultimately shut off inside its particular language, and there is no way of appreciating its unique effect apart from knowing that language, and knowing it well."
--John Weightman, The Independent

"Textures are harder (maybe impossible) to translate than structures, linear order more difficult than syntax, lines more difficult than larger patterns. Poetry is made at all these levels--and so is translation. That is why nothing less than a poem can translate another."
--A.K. Ramanujan, The Art of Translation, 1989

"Whatever the approach, whatever the pitfalls, we have to translate: other traditions and their authors permit us a bravery and risk with our own language that we are simply unable to grant ourselves."
--Don Paterson, RTE Radio 1, November 2005

"A good way of getting a sense of the values and priorities of the Iliad’s many translators is to compare how they translate a given passage. The best showcases for these comparisons aren’t necessarily the poem’s “big moments” but smaller, more ordinary passages..."
--Daniel Mendelsohn, The New Yorker, 1 November 2011

"Make the poem bright at the reading, true in the echo, strong to the ear, right by the eye. An English translator has to make an English poet of his foreign friend."
--Glyn Maxwell, On Poetry

"While anthologies survive, the idea of poetic tradition survives. They house intricate conversations between poets and between poems, between the living and the dead, between the present and the future."
--Edna Longley, Poetry & Posterity, 2000

"The institution of the anthology...is at best a convenience for teachers but otherwise a pernicious modern nuisance which keeps readers away from books of poetry."
--Thom Gunn, Numbers

*                  *                  *                  *                  *
War, Prayer & Poetry

"War and poetry have come to seem to belong together, like love and songs, or landscape and painting."
--Jeremy Treglown, The Independent, 23 April 1995

"A poem is very like a prayer: it's shareable; you're talking to something that you don't know is there or not; it's a blank page just as heaven is a blank page; and you have this act of faith in poetry, just as you have in prayer."
--Brendan Kennelly, BBC Radio 4, March 2004

"Poetry is religious in its contemplation of experience under the eye of eternity. It helps us to live our lives in the face of destruction."
--Seamus Heaney, The Sunday Times, 30 January 2000

"All religion is fossilized poetry. Poets are the real practitioners of the sacred."
--Li-Young Lee, Range of the Possible, 2002

"By its formal integrity a poem reminds us of the formal integrity of other works, creatures, and structures of the world...Thus the poet affirms and collaborates in the formality of the Creation."
--Wendell Berry, What Are People For?, 1990

"Like philosophy, independent thought, and believing one's own nose, poetry perhaps has to be the province of the few."
--Herbert Lomas, Writing Poems, 1994

*                  *                  *                  *                  *
Language, History & Chemistry

"Only through poetry can human solitude be heard in the history of humanity. In that respect, all the poets who ever wrote are contemporaries."
--Charles Simic, The Unemployed Fortune-Teller, 1994

"There's a certain life-saving, safeguarding element in art that permits you to take language, which is after all a very ephemeral, evanescent thing, and draw a line around it and keep it fixed in place, so that it can last through centuries."
--Harvey Shapiro, The Missouri Review, Vol. 21 No. 2 1998

"What the lyric poets want is to convert their fragment of time into eternity. It's like going to the bank and expecting to get a million dollars for your nickel."
--Charles Simic, The Unemployed Fortune-Teller, 1994

"Most of us live in a sort of linear and horizontal way, but what poems and poetry are trying to do is probably to live in a vertical way down the shaft of one of those horizontal moments."
--Eamon Grennan, The Kenyon Review, Summer 2006

"If poetry can't come to terms with the vocabulary of science and technology, it is leaving out a large part of human life and is so much the poorer."
--R.S. Thomas, BBC Radio 3, November 1991

"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."
--Paul Dirac

"Like two chemical reagents missing the necessary catalyst, science and poetry remain largely unreacted, despite well-meaning efforts on both sides."
--Peter Forbes, The Independent, 16 November 2006

*                  *                  *                  *                  *
Metaphor, Meter & Rhyme

"Poets are regressive creatures who have never gotten over the sensual thrills of babbling. While mature men and women use language to buy shares and wage wars, poets love to relish the shape and flavour of words on the tongue."
--Terry Eagleton, The Times, 20 January 2007

"Poems scan naturally on alternate beats, not every which way, because such is our flesh: We walk, march, or dance on exactly two feet, two alternating feet, not every which way on amoeba pseudopods."
--Peter Viereck, Contemporary Poetry Review, November 2005

"How many sandals did Alighieri wear out in the course of his poetic work, wandering about on the goat paths of Italy? The Inferno and especially the Purgatorio glorify the human gait, the measure and rhythm of walking, the foot and its shape. The step, linked to the breathing and saturated with thought: this Dante understands as the beginning of prosody."
--Osip Mandelstam, Conversation about Dante

"Each poet who is seriously exploratory keeps rebelling against his or her own framework of ideas. Many such rebellions are necessary to keep one's art alive."
--Mark Halliday, The Writer's Chronicle, February 2002

"Poetry needs metaphor, which is the rhyming of concepts, more than it needs rhyme, which is the analogy of sound."
--Brian Phillips, Poetry, June-July 2004

"There are reasons to rhyme sometimes, to half-rhyme and to not rhyme. But to oppose rhyme as arbitrary, as some kind of compromise your mind makes with language, is not only to traduce your language in its present form, unimaginably deeper, stronger and brighter than you are, it's to go up against history, ancient history, pre-history."
--Glyn Maxwell, On Poetry

"When a poem arises from the psychic deep, it can possess soothsaying force. The emotional mark it makes can be so unexpected that it feels more like impersonal revelation than personal utterance. And when a poet gets in this close and this deep, you stop admiring and start being commanded."
--Seamus Heaney, Poetry Ireland Review, Autumn 2003

"For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem--a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Poet

"Blessed be all metrical rules that forbid automatic responses, force us to have second thoughts, free us from the fetters of Self."
--W.H. Auden

"There is no escape from metre; there is only mastery."
--T.S. Eliot

*                  *                  *                  *                  *
The Purpose of Poetry

"Sooner or later even the poem I'm most proud of lies lifeless on the page before me, completely inert and without merit; and I have no idea where another will come from."
--Anthony Hecht, The Paris Review, Fall 1988

"If the poet is not finally willing to be relentlessly honest, if the poet is not willing to fail in his or her expression, to be and to appear to be silly, sentimental, wrong, then the poet is probably not going to accomplish anything other than the learning of competency or skill."
--Dave Smith, Range of the Possible, 2002

"Fear of failure narrows a poet's potential."
--Joseph Brodsky, Conversations With Joseph Brodsky, 1998

"Poets are like pigs, only worth money when they're dead."
--Ted Hughes, The Independent, 16 November 1993

"I asked Professor Vance what he considered to be the purpose of poetry. He looked like a huge raven with his glistening black hair and piercing eyes, and he often had an oracular manner of speaking, as if he might answer a question with an allusion, like 'Nevermore.' But on this occasion he paused and with concentrated deliberation looked at me and replied, 'The purpose of poetry is to help one meet one's death with grace.'"
--Robert Pack, God Keep Me A Damned Fool

"Death is what gets poets up in the morning."
--Billy Collins, San Francisco Chronicle, 9 January 2005



Finding Meaning, Values and Community
in Poetry

Poetry Seminar & Discussion Group Facilitated by Robert Ronnow
read comments from seminar participants

            World poetry, from ancient to modern times, is the most complete, succinct and elegant record available to us of human wisdom, experience and ethics. Reading and discussing poems can help us discover personal meaning, articulate values and make commitments, and join a community of thinkers, visionaries and witnesses across generations and cultures. This seminar or discussion group is designed for groups of 5-20 people who wish to be introduced to or expand their contact with a wide range of poetry and participate in lively, facilitated discussions of exceptional poems.

            Ezra Pound said that the great themes of literature can be listed on the back of a postage stamp. I consider them to be: Love (how life begins), Death (how life ends), and Governance (how we live together between birth and death). Within these great themes, however, there are innumerable subjects, settings and perspectives.

            I select pairs or groups of poems with common themes for reading or discussion that correspond with the expressed interests of the participants. Comparing pairs or small groups of poems that share a similar theme or motif allows the group to appreciate and evaluate the perspectives, values and styles of different poets. Articulating preferences helps participants form strong attachments to particular poems and poets and discover their own values and aesthetics.

            The discussion itself is informal in that there is no obligation to speak. One can participate by listening. As facilitator, I rarely state a preference, take a position or lecture and most of my contributions come in the form of questions. My questions are motivated by the desire to understand as completely and accurately as possible what a participant means. I often “feed back” or restate what I think I am hearing for agreement or further clarification by the participant.

            It is true that content and form are one in poetry. What was said could only have been said in that way at that time. A poem is an artifact, a made thing, not an explanation of anything. However, for the poem to be meaningful we must be able to say or picture what the poet is seeing and describing. We must try to understand what the poet is actually saying. We must not mistake an old dog dying for a puppy being born. Therefore, I will frequently ask participants to identify the specific words, phrases or parts of the poem that are stimulating the thoughts or feelings they are expressing. Once the connection between the participant and the poem has been established and verified, once we understand what is happening in the poem, we can go on to other judgements and pleasures.

            Once the poem is meaningful to us, participants assess the poem’s value. Does it matter to us; do we really care? These are largely subjective judgements determined by the reader's values and experiences. But this is why we read poetry–not just to exercise our powers of comprehension, but to find expression and confirmation of our values and to join a community of like-minded souls who stand together across time and tribes.

Comments from Seminar Participants

"Robert Ronnow taught a class on poetry here at Berkshire Community College for OLLI
and it was one of the best I have ever taken. It was a small class but everyone enjoyed it immensely."

--Sharon, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute

Mr. Ronnow, Here is a bit of additional feedback from a colleague here at the office on the
“tomb-stained additional parts of a window…” (Swenson, “Unconscious Came a Beauty”). Could it
be the chrysalis the worm is encased in before it sheds free into the butterfly? The term chrysalis
means “a gilded box.” The wings emerge nearly jeweled in aspect so this would also complete
the Swenson image of unconscious beauty as much of Nature is allowed quietly to be.
Thank you again for an engaging class. Poetry helps expand our perspectives
and therefore understandings of others and ourselves.
--Lisa, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute

"Thank you for a most interesting, stimulating and challenging time
and for introducing me to poets I do not know."

--Michael, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute


New York City Haiku
--from the New York Times

On the 6 to Spring
two cops help a tourist whose
map is upside down

— Frances Richey, 63, Manhattan



morning Q commute
has the best smell of the day:
coffee and shampoo

—Vanessa Vichit-Vadakan, 43, Berkeley, Calif.




Face seen across tracks,
We stare, and a train passes,
Face gone forever.

—Hillel Rosenshine, 14, Manhattan




Beware the puddle
of indeterminate depth
that swallows boots whole

—Mary M. Suk, 44, Queens




Our eyes avoid but
If we looked we would see that
We might just be friends.

Sarah Lenaghan, 13, Brooklyn




Behind him a trail
of bread crumbs, popcorn and seeds.
He makes birds happy

—Gerard Middleton, 49, Brooklyn




Tourists in New York
Three abreast, strolling, chatting:
I want to shove you.

—Carolyn Lengel, 52, Garrison, N.Y.




Riding through the park
no daffodils blooming yet
— but unbuttoned coats.

— Sharon Rousseau, 50, Manhattan




If Atlas held our
Island and anger turned to
Lead, he would drop it.

—Laura Seigle, 43, Manhattan




There’s not much twerking
Going on at six a.m.
On the ferry boat.

— Robert D. Diamant, 72, Staten Island




Crick in my neck from
sipping this ice cold coffee.
L Train, where are you?

— Kristina Mueller, 27, Brooklyn




“Insufficient fare!”
But, without saying a word,
stranger swipes me in.

— Janet Gottlieb, 59, Brooklyn




Union Square Market
Blueberries for ten dollars
New York City blues

—Sharon Cohen, 33, Dallas




My hand on your hand
Your face a whisper from mine
For one stop only

—Isabel Martin, 32, Brooklyn




The New Yorker is
Not kind, they say. I say, he
Just left it at home

—Flor Arley Hodge, 15, Bronx




I hear them fighting
Through the thin wall between us —
but I don’t take sides.

—Nurit Israeli, 71, Manhattan




If you buy the beers,
I’ll buy kebabs. Let’s call it
Insider trading

—Libby Merritt, 23, Manhattan




Every single day
We walk past each other but
I’ll never know you

— Helen Huynh-Trinh, 21, Brooklyn




Subway tracks at night
Patter of leftover rain
Or rat feet, maybe

—Laura Baranik, 30, Queens




Hidden among the
Sleepwalking, caffeine zombies.
A morning person.

—Aimee Estrada, 35, Hyde Park, N.Y.




Rent: too high for me.
I’m forced to move to Jersey
where no one visits.

—Megan Hauser, 38, Brooklyn




this city’s a place
where a stranger’s shoulder pad
may be a chin rest

— Peter Valentine, 46, Brooklyn




Homeless man on train.
He sat there staring at me.
Do I look okay?

—Margaret Gwyn Dunham, 63, Manhattan




We can spend the night
together, but I expect
bagels in morning.

— Natasha Danielá McGlynn, 28, Washington




A moment of bliss
When tunnels steal our WiFi
Quick glimpse of freedom

—Emma Solomon, 18, Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.




If the “F” comes now,
I could get there, right on time.
But I’m still in bed.

— Jill Helene, 34, Manhattan




Auto, boat, bus, train.
It’s New York island hopping!
Tan not included.

—Colleen Tremont, 28, Manhattan