Emily Dickinson(xxx) writes in Life:VI.

If I can stop one Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain

Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in Vain.

Kenneth Koch(xxxx) in Sleeping On The Wing suggests ways of overcoming anxieties about whether we will ‘understand’ a poem: ‘It doesn’t make sense to read poetry the way you read a newspaper article. It is good, in general, to read a poem with the kind of freedom, openness and sensitive attentiveness to your own thought and feelings that you have when you write a poem yourself or when you listen to a friend talking or when you ear music. You understand the meaning of the words in the poem with your intellect, but you also respond to the poem with a part of your intelligence that includes your feelings and imagination and experience. You can like a poem before you understand it, and be moved by it, and in fact, that is a sign that you’re starting to understand it, that you’re reading the poem in a good way. Being moved by a poem — laughing or feeling sad or full of longing — or being excited by it, or feeling (maybe you don’t know why) the “rightness” of the poem is a serious part of reading and liking poetry. You may find what you read to be beautiful, or be reminded of places and times, or find in it another way to look at things. All this can help you to understand the poem because it brings it closer to you, makes it a part of your experience. And the better you understand a good poem, the more you’ll like it. The best way to begin is by reading the poem several times to get used to the style. After you get a sense of the whole poem, there are some things you can do to help yourself understand anything that’s unclear, which often it won’t be. There may be a word or two you don’t understand, or a reference to a person or a place that you’re not familiar with. These you can look up in a dictionary or encyclopedia or ask someone about. There may be a sentence that’s so long it’s hard to follow, or a sentence that’s left incomplete; words may be in a unusual order, or a sentence hard to see because it’s divided into different lines. For these problems, just go through the poem slowly, seeing where the different sentences begin and end. If you understand part of a poem and not another part, try to use what you do understand to help you see what the rest means. If the poem still seems hard to you, it may be because you’re looking for something that isn’t there. You may think that the poem makes a point, that it comes to some conclusion about life in general, when the point may only be to get into the poem the look of a locust tree in the early spring. Or you may be looking for a hidden meaning that isn’t there. The suggestiveness of poetry often means that people think there is one specific hidden meaning. There isn’t one. A good poem means just what it says, and it suggests what it suggests. The search for deep meanings behind what is said is usually painful and unrewarding. Poems don’t usually have hidden meanings. One main trouble with “finding” such meaning when they’re not really there is that they end up hiding what really is there. One of Wallace Stevens’s poems begins

The houses are haunted

By white nightgowns.

He means, in fact, as you realize after you read the poems a few times and get to know it, that people are wearing conservative white night clothes which make them look like ghosts. It’s a witty way of making fun of them for being so conservative and dull. If you start off looking for hidden meanings, however, you may never know this. You may start thinking of a supernatural phenomenon, of real ghosts, maybe even of Lazarus and his rising from the grace, and you’ll lose the poem completely. It’s like looking for the real meaning behind a sailboat race on the bay. You’ll probably miss the beauty and excitement of the boats, the water, the sky, the day. Remember (writing poems of your own will help you to know it) that poets are not big, dark, heavy personages dwelling in clouds of mystery, but people like yourself who are doing what they like to do and do well. Writing poetry isn’t nay more mysterious than what a dancer or a singer or a painter does. If a poet writes well, what he says is to be found in the words that are actually there, almost always in the commonest meanings. Sometimes, too, people make the mistake of analyzing the poem word by word before they’ve got an idea of what the whole poem is like. This seems scholarly and scientific but is as misleading as analyzing each of a person’s words in a conversation before you know who he is and what he is talking about. Better than starting right in to analyze according to some already existing idea is to think of how the poem is affecting you, think of your own responses to it. Also, when first reading a poem, you don’t have to be concerned with its technique, with how it is made — that is to say, its rhyme, its meter, its imagery, and so on. That can be interesting to talk or write about later, but when you’re first reading a poem you don’t need to do it. Even when they don’t know much about poetry, people sometimes have strong ideas about what poetry ought to be like. This can keep them from enjoying all the different ways poetry can be. If you read poetry expecting it to be always the same, you will be confused. It is an art, like music or painting, with all kinds of possible variations. Everything you like about a poem will be enhanced, and what you understand of it will be increased, by reading other poems by the same poet. As you get used to a poet’s style and so on, you can hear everything in his poems more clearly. If you don’t feel intimidated, understanding or figuring things out can be enjoyable in itself. Think of the rather pleasant process of figuring out a part of town you’ve never been in or an interesting person you’ve just met. When you read a poem, the poet’s experience becomes, in a way, your own, so you see things and think things you wouldn’t see and think otherwise. It’s something like travelling — seeing new places, hearing things talked about in new ways, getting ideas of other possibilities. It can change you a little and add to what you know and are.’


 W.S.Merwin(xxxx)states that language evolved not to convey information, but inexpressible inner experience:   ‘In his early books, Merwin’s poetry was tight and traditional. Later work, however, was hazier, more abstract, more experimental. Punctuation completely disappeared. Some critics called the work obscure. The challenge in achieving clarity, Merwin says, is that poetry “tries to convey some inner experience that there is no way of expressing. Language evolved not to convey information so much as to convey some inner experience that there was no way of expressing. It was an attempt to convey an inner sense of passion – although it did have information in it – but the feeling was more powerful.”

Mary Oliver(xxxx) is convinced of the role of imagination in widening our perspective: ‘Oh, yes. It’s my responsibility if I choose to do it, to write as well as I possibly can. I believe art is utterly important. It is one of the things that could save us. We don’t have to rely totally on experience if we can do things in our imagination. … It’s the only way in which you can live more lives than your own. You can escape your own time, your own sensibility, your own narrowness of vision.’

Robert Duncan(xxx) in Poetry, A Natural Thing calls poetry ‘a spiritual urgency’ :

    Neither our vices nor our virtues
    further the poem. “They came up
    and died
    just like they do every year
    on the rocks.”           

    The poem
    feeds upon thought, feeling, impulse,
    to breed    itself,
    a spiritual urgency at the dark ladders leaping.This beauty is an inner persistence
    toward the source
    striving against (within) down-rushet of the river,
    a call we heard and answer
    in the lateness of the world
    primordial bellowings
    from which the youngest world might spring,salmon not in the well where the
    hazelnut falls
    but at the falls battling, inarticulate,
    blindly making it.This is one picture apt for the mind.          

    A second: a moose painted by Stubbs,
    where last year’s extravagant antlers

    lie on the ground.
    The forlorn moosey-faced poem wears
    new antler-buds,
    the same,”a little heavy, a little contrived”,          

    his only beauty, to be

    all moose.


      Wallace Stevens(xxxx) on why poets do not like to explain: ‘Things that have their origin in the imagination or in the emotions (poems) very often have meanings that differ in nature from the meanings of things that have their origin in reason. They have imaginative or emotional meanings, not rational meanings, and they communicate these meanings to people who are susceptible to imaginative or emotional meanings. They may communicate nothing at all to people who are open only to rational meanings. In short, things that have their origin in the imagination or in the emotions very often take on a form that is ambiguous or uncertain. It is not possible to attach a single, rational meaning to such things without destroying the imaginative or emotional ambiguity or uncertainty that is inherent in them and that is why poets do not like to explain.’

      Robert Frost ( xxxx)defines the difference between scholars and artists : “Scholars and artists thrown together are often annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ. Both work from knowledge; but…differ most importantly in the way their knowledge is come by. Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books. They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields. No acquirement is on assignment, or even self-assignment. Knowledge of the second kind is much more available in the wild free ways of wit and art. A schoolboy may be defined as one who can tell you what he knows in the order in which he learned it. The artist must value himself as he snatches a thing from some previous order in time and space into a new order with not so much as a ligature clinging to it of the old place where it was organic”

      Galway Kinnell(xxxx)aspires to move beyond cliche: “I try to see past the usual clichés about things,” he smiles. ” ‘Pig’ is a pejorative word, but if you get to know them, get a feeling for them, touch them, you see that they have an extraordinary beauty. When creatures don’t have an extraordinary beauty, it’s because the person in contact with them is not seeing it. I feel more and more in love with other creatures as I get older.” Some critics use the word “spiritual” to describe Kinnell’s poems, but that is not a word he would use. When he writes, he addresses his work “to being.” He thinks in terms of accuracy, of capturing what seems to be truth in a particular moment and context. “It is almost as if the words are imitations of something else – shapes of reality.”

      William Shakespeare(xxxx),in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, brackets poets with lunatics and lovers:

      These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
      Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
      Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
      More than cool reason ever comprehends.
      The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
      Are of imagination all compact:
      One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
      That is the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
      Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt:
      The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
      Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
      And as imagination bodies forth
      The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
      Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
      A local habitation and a name. 

       Bede(7xx)recounts the conversation between Caedmon, the first English poet, and an angel: “Caedmon, sing me something.” He answered and said, ” I cannot sing so I left the feasting and came here because I could not.” He who spoke to him again said, “Nevertheless you can sing to me.” He said, “What shall I sing?” He said, “Sing me the Creation.”

      Gary Snyder (xxxx), in How Poetry Comes To Me, describes his relationship with the Muse:

      It comes blundering over the

       Boulders at night, it stays

      Frightened outside the

       Range of my campfire

       I go to meet it at the

      Edge of the light

      Shelley, in Ode to The West Wind, speaks of a resurrection, revealing his poetic ambition and deepest wish:

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      O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
      Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
      Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing, Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
      Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
      Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed
      The winged seeds, where they lie cold and low,
      Each like a corpse within its grave, until
      Thine azure sister of the Spring shall blow

      Her clarion o’er the dreaming earth, and fill
      (Driving sweet buds like flocks to feed in air)
      With living hues and odors plain and hill:

      Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
      Destroyer and preserver; hear, oh, hear!

      II Thou on whose stream, ‘mid the steep sky’s commotion,
      Loose clouds like earth’s decaying leaves are shed,
      Shook from the tangled boughs of Heaven and Ocean,Angels of rain and lightning: there are spread
      On the blue surface of thine aery surge,
      Like the bright hair uplifted from the head
      Of some fierce Maenad, even from the dim verge
      Of the horizon to the zenith’s height,
      The locks of the approaching storm.

      Thou dirgeOf the dying year, to which this closing night
      Will be the dome of a vast sepulchre,
      Vaulted with all thy congregated might

      Of vapors, from whose solid atmosphere
      Black rain, and fire, and hail will burst: oh, hear!


      Thou who didst waken from his summer dreams
      The blue Mediterranean, where he lay,
      Lulled by the coil of his crystalline streams, Beside a pumice isle in Baiae’s bay,
      And saw in sleep old palaces and towers
      Quivering within the wave’s intenser day,All overgrown with azure moss and flowers
      So sweet, the sense faints picturing them! Thou
      For whose path the Atlantic’s level powers
      Cleave themselves into chasms, while far below
      The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
      The sapless foliage of the ocean, know

      Thy voice, and suddenly grow gray with fear,
      And tremble and despoil themselves: oh, hear!


      If I were a dead leaf thou mightest bear;
      If I were a swift cloud to fly with thee;
      A wave to pant beneath thy power, and share
      The impulse of thy strength, only less free
      Than thou, O uncontrollable! If even
      I were as in my boyhood, and could be

      The comrade of thy wanderings over Heaven,
      As then, when to outstrip thy skiey speed
      Scarce seemed a vision; I would ne’er have striven

      As thus with thee in prayer in my sore need.
      Oh, lift me as a wave, a leaf, a cloud!
      I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

      A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed
      One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.


      Make me thy lyre, even as the forest is:
      What if my leaves are falling like its own!
      The tumult of thy mighty harmonies

      Will take from both a deep, autumnal tone,
      Sweet though in sadness. Be thou, Spirit fierce,
      My spirit! Be thou me, impetuous one!Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
      Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
      And, by the incantation of this verse,
      Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth
      Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
      Be through my lips to unawakened earth

      The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
      If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?



Ovid (43 BC – 17 AD) describes in Tristia, 1V.10.19-26 the mysterious ways of the Muse :  “But when I was a boy my pleasure was in holy things of heaven and the Muse was secretly drawing me into her work. Often my father said, ‘why do you pursue this useless interest ? Homer himself left no wealth.’ I was moved by his words, and turning my back on all Helicon I started to try writing in language free from metre. Of its own accord a poem would come, to a fitting rhythm, and what I was trying to say became a line of verse.’ 

Edgar Allan Poe(xxxx) discusses the difficulty of trying to ‘reconcile the obstinate oils and waters of Poetry and Truth’, and their ‘proper subjection to…Beauty’: It has been assumed, tacitly and avowedly, directly and indirectly, that the ultimate object of all Poetry is Truth. Every poem, it is said, should inculcate a moral; and by this moral is the poetical merit of the work to be adjudged. We Americans especially have patronized this happy idea; and we Bostonians, very especially, have developed it in full. 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 permit ourselves to look into our own souls, we should immediately there discover that under the sun there 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. With as deep a reverence for the True as ever inspired the bosom of man, I would, nevertheless, limit, in some measure, its modes of inculcation. I would limit to enforce them. I would not enfeeble them by dissipation. The demands of Truth are severe. She has no sympathy with the myrtles. All that which is so indispensable in Song, is precisely all that with which she has nothing whatever to do. It is but making her a flaunting paradox, to wreathe her in gems and flowers. In enforcing a truth, we need severity rather than efflorescence of language. We must be simple, precise, terse. We must be cool, calm, unimpassioned. In a word, we must be in that mood which, as nearly as possible, is the exact converse of the poetical. He must be blind indeed who does not perceive the radical and chasmal differences between the truthful and poetical modes of inculcation. He must be theory-mad beyond redemption who, in spite of these differences, shall still persist in attempting to reconcile the obstinate oils and waters of Poetry and Truth.   Dividing the world of the mind into its three most immediately obvious distinctions, we have the Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. I place Taste in the middle, because it is just this position which, in the mind, it occupies. It holds intimate relations with wither extreme; but from the Moral Sense is separated by so faint a difference that Aristotle has not hesitated to place some of its operations among the virtues themselves. Nevertheless, we find the offices of the trio marked with a sufficient distinction. Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the Beautiful while the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty. Of this latter, while Conscience teaches the obligation, and Reason the expediency, Taste contents herself with displaying the charms:–waging war upon Vice solely on the ground of her deformity–her disproportion–her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate, to the harmonious–in a word, to Beauty.   An immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the Beautiful. This is what administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds and odors, and sentiments amid which he exists. And just as the lily is repeated in the lake, or the eyes of Amaryllis in the mirror, so is the mere oral or written repetition of these forms, and sounds, and colors, and odors, and sentiments, a duplicate source of delight. But this mere repetition is not poetry. He who shall simply sing, with however glowing enthusiasm, or with however vivid a truth of description, of the sights, and sounds, and odors, and colors, and sentiments, which greet him in common with all mankind–he, I say, has yet failed to prove his divine title. There is still a something in the distance which he has been unable to attain. We have still a thirst unquenchable, to allay which he has not shown us the crystal springs. This thirst belongs to the immortality of Man. It is at once a consequence and an indication of his perennial existence. It is the desire of the moth for the star. It is no mere appreciation of the Beauty before us–but a wild effort to reach the Beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic presence of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone. And thus when by Poetry–or when by Music, the most entrancing of the Poetic moods–we find ourselves melted into tears–we weep then . . . through excess of pleasure, but through a certain, petulant, impatient sorrow at our inability to grasp now, wholly, here on earth, at once and forever, those divine and rapturous joys, of which through the poem, or through the music, we attain to but brief and indeterminate glimpses.   The struggle to apprehend the supernal Loveliness–this struggle, on the part of souls fittingly constituted–has given to the world all that which it (the world) has ever been enabled at once to understand and to feel as poetic.   The Poetic Sentiment, of course, may develop itself in various modes–in painting, in Sculpture, in Architecture, in the Dance–very especially in Music–and very peculiarly, and with a wide field, in the composition of the Landscape Garden. Our present theme, however, has regard only to its manifestations in words. And here let me speak briefly on the topic of rhythm. Contenting myself with the certainty that Music, in its various modes of metre, rhythm, and rhyme, is of so vast a moment in Poetry as never to be wisely rejected–is so vitally important an adjunct, that he is simply silly who declines its assistance, I will not now pause to maintain its absolute essentiality. It is in Music, perhaps, that the soul most nearly attains the great end for which, when inspired by the Poetic Sentiment, it struggles–the creation of supernal Beauty. It may be, indeed, that here this sublime end is, now and then, attained in fact. We are often made to feel with a shivering delight, that from an earthly harp are stricken notes which cannot have been unfamiliar to the angels. And thus there can be little doubt that in the union of Poetry with Music in its popular sense, we shall find the widest field for the Poetic development. The old Bards and Minnesingers had advantages which we do not possess–and Thomas More, singing his own songs, was, in the most legitimate manner, perfecting them as poems.   To recapitulate, then:–I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience, it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever with Duty or with Truth.   A few words, however, in explanation. That pleasure which is at once the most pure, the most elevating, and the most intense, is derived, I maintain, from the contemplation of the Beautiful. In the contemplation of Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable elevation, or excitement of the soul, which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment, and which is so easily distinguished from Truth, which is the satisfaction of the Reason, or from passion, which is the excitement of the heart. I make Beauty, therefore–using the word as inclusive of the sublime–I make Beauty the province of the poem, simple because it is an obvious rule of Art that effects should be made to spring as directly as possible from their causes: no one as yet having been weak enough to deny that the peculiar elevation in question is at least most readily attainable in the poem. It by no means follows however, that the incitements of Passion, or the precepts of Duty, or even the Lessons of Truth, may not be introduced into a poem, and with advantage; for they may subserve, incidentally, in various ways, the general purposes of the work:–but the true artist will always contrive to tone them down in proper subjection to that Beauty which is at atmosphere and the real essence of the poem. 

William Blake (xxx) claims a prophetic role for the imagination, and and ascribes to it clairvoyant capacities :

Hear the voice of the Bard!
Who present, past, and future sees;
Whose ears have heard
The Holy Word,
That walked among the ancient trees,

Calling the lapsed soul,
And weeping in the evening dew;
That might control
The starry pole,
And fallen, fallen, light renew!

“O Earth, O Earth, return!
Arise from out the dewy grass;
Night is worn,
And the morn
Rises from the slumberous mass.

“Turn away no more;
Why wilt thou turn away?
The starry floor,
The watery shore,
Is given thee till the break of day.”


for Blake imagination and eternity are one and the same world:

Every Time less than a pulsation of the artery Is equal in its period & value to Six Thousand Years. For in this Period the Poets Work is Done: and all the Great Events of Time start forth & are concievd in such a Period Within a Moment: a Pulsation of the Artery.

Plato (xx)regards poets as a danger to society, and poetry as ……..

Rilke (  -1922) in the 9th Duino Elegy proposes what he considers the highest use of the human capacity for language:


 “Praise this world to the angel, not the unsayable one, you can’t impress him with glorious emotion;

 in the universe where he feels more powerfully, you are a novice. So show him

 something simple which, formed over generations,

lives as our own, near our hand and within our gaze.

“Tell him of Things. He will stand astonished; as you stood

by the rope-maker in Rome or the potter along the Nile.

 Show him how happy a Thing can be, how innocent and ours,

 how even lamenting grief purely decides to take form,

 serves as a Thing, or dies into a Thing–, and blissfully

 escapes far beyond the violin. “—And these Things,

which live by perishing, know you are praising them; transient,

 they look to us for deliverance: us, the most transient of all.

 They want us to change them, utterly, in our invisible heart,

within—oh endlessly—within us! Whoever we may be at last.”


 In a late, short poem, Rilke defines the poet’s responsibility:

‘We are mouth, no more.

Who sings the distant heart,

 that dwells, whole,within all things?

Its powerful beating is shared among us,

 in little beats. And its great sorrow is –

like its great jubilation – too great for us.

 So we tear ourselves away once more

 and are only mouth. But all at once

breaks out the great heartbeat, at home within us,

so that we cry out…

and then we are Being,Transformation and Sight.

 Adrienne Rich(xxxx) talks of being ‘pulled by names’: ‘But I found myself pulled by names: Dire Whelk, Dusky Tegula, Fingered Limpet, Hooded Puncturella, Veiled Chiton, Bat Star, By-the-Wind Sailor, Crumb-of-Bread Sponge, Eye Fringed Worm, Sugar Wrack, Frilled Anemone, Bull Kelp, Ghost Shrimp, Sanderling, Walleye Surfperch, Volcano Barnacle, Stiff-footed Sea Cucumber, Leather Star, Innkeeper Worm, Lug Worm. And I felt the names drawing me into a state of piercing awareness, a state I associate with reading and writing poems. These names–by whom given and agreed on?–these names work as poetry works, enlivening a sensuous reality through recognition or through the play of sounds (the short i’s of Fingered Limpet, the open vowels of Bull Kelp, Hooded Puncturella, Bat Star); the poising of heterogeneous images (volcano and barnacle, leather and star, sugar and wrack) to evoke other worlds of meaning. Sugar Wrack: a foundered ship in the Triangle Trade? Volcano Barnacle: tiny unnoticed undergrowth with explosive potential? Who saw the bird named Sanderling and gave it that caressive, diminutive name? Or was Sanderling the name of one who saw it? These names work as poetry works in another sense as well: they make something unforgettable. You will remember the pictorial names as you won’t the Latin, which, however, is more specific as to genus and species. Human eyes gazed at each of all these forms of life and saw resemblance in difference–the core of metaphor, that which lies close to the core of poetry itse1f, the only hope for a humane civil life. The eye for likeness in the midst of contrast, the appeal to recognition, the association of thing to thing, spiritual fact with embodied form, begins here. And so begins the suggestion of multiple, many-layered, rather than singular, meanings, wherever we look, in the ordinary world.’ : Archive of all poems


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