poetry

Matthew Arnold’s 4 words that describe Homer

From Edwin Frank & Andrew McCord’s interview of Robert Fagles in “The Art of Translation No. 2” (The Paris Review: Summer 1999, No. 151):

I think it’s through that effort, trying to turn Homer into poetry, that we just may come a little closer to Matthew Arnold’s unforgettable touchstones—Homer is simple, direct, swift, and above all, noble.

Philip Larkin on modernism

From Robert Phillips’s interview of Philip Larkin in “The Art of Poetry No. 30” (The Paris Review: Summer 1982, No. 84):

It seems to me undeniable that up to this century literature used language in the way we all use it, painting represented what anyone with normal vision sees, and music was an affair of nice noises rather than nasty ones. The innovation of “modernism” in the arts consisted of doing the opposite. I don’t know why, I’m not a historian. You have to distinguish between things that seemed odd when they were new but are now quite familiar, such as Ibsen and Wagner, and things that seemed crazy when they were new and seem crazy now, like Finnegans Wake and Picasso.

Ray Bradbury on what you know & how to write

From Sam Weller’s interview of Ray Bradbury in “The Art of Fiction No. 203” (The Paris Review: Spring 2010, No. 192):

I learned this early on. Three things are in your head: First, everything you have experienced from the day of your birth until right now. Every single second, every single hour, every single day. Then, how you reacted to those events in the minute of their happening, whether they were disastrous or joyful. Those are two things you have in your mind to give you material. Then, separate from the living experiences are all the art experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve learned from other writers, artists, poets, film directors, and composers. So all of this is in your mind as a fabulous mulch and you have to bring it out. How do you do that? I did it by making lists of nouns and then asking, What does each noun mean? You can go and make up your own list right now and it would be different than mine. The night. The crickets. The train whistle. The basement. The attic. The tennis shoes. The fireworks. All these things are very personal. Then, when you get the list down, you begin to word-associate around it. You ask, Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I put this noun down and not some other word? Do this and you’re on your way to being a good writer. You can’t write for other people. You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are. 

INTERVIEWER After you’ve made your list of nouns, where do you go from there? 

BRADBURY I begin to write little pensées about the nouns. It’s prose poetry. It’s evocative. It tries to be metaphorical. Saint-John Perse published several huge volumes of this type of poetry on beautiful paper with lovely type. His books of poetry had titles like Rains, Snows, Winds, Seamarks. I could never afford to buy his books because they must have cost twenty or thirty dollars—and this was about fifty years ago. But he influenced me because I read him in the bookstore and I started to write short, descriptive paragraphs, two hundred words each, and in them I began to examine my nouns. Then I’d bring some characters on to talk about that noun and that place, and all of a sudden I had a story going. I used to do the same thing with photographs that I’d rip out of glossy magazines. I’d take the photographs and I’d write little prose poems about them.

Richard Wilbur on Edgar Allan Poe

From Helen McCloy Ellison, Ellesa Clay High, & Peter A. Stitt’s interview of Richard Wilbur in “The Art of Poetry No. 22” (The Paris Review: Winter 1977, No. 72):

INTERVIEWER That was one of your criticisms of Poe’s poetry, wasn’t it, that it wasn’t grounded enough in the concrete.

WILBUR Yes. He is hurrying away from it as fast as he can go. He has to mention it in order to destroy it! Otherwise, you’d see nothing but the smoke. He will say “seas,” and then will add, “without a shore,” and make it impossible for you to think of any sea that you ever heard of.

Richard Wilbur on the advantages of being a poet

From Helen McCloy Ellison, Ellesa Clay High, & Peter A. Stitt’s interview of Richard Wilbur in “The Art of Poetry No. 22” (The Paris Review: Winter 1977, No. 72):

INTERVIEWER Are there what one could call advantages to being a poet?

WILBUR Well, one is allowed enormous license in behavior, one is forgiven everything, one can look as one likes, and one can travel around the country reading the same poems over and over; whereas if a scholar or critic wanted to travel around the country he’d have to write a number of fresh lectures, you see. You get to see a lot of the country on the same old material this way, and I like that.

Richard Wilbur on the difference between imagination & fantasy

From Helen McCloy Ellison, Ellesa Clay High, & Peter A. Stitt’s interview of Richard Wilbur in “The Art of Poetry No. 22” (The Paris Review: Winter 1977, No. 72):

To me, the imagination is a faculty that fuses things, takes hold of the physical and ideal worlds and makes them one, provisionally. Fantasy, in my mind, is a poetic or artistic activity that leaves something out—it ignores the concrete and the actual in order to create a purely abstract, unreal realm.

Richard Wilbur on what poetry is

From Helen McCloy Ellison, Ellesa Clay High, & Peter A. Stitt’s interview of Richard Wilbur in “The Art of Poetry No. 22” (The Paris Review: Winter 1977, No. 72):

I think of poetry in terms of the compressed expression of the whole of one’s experience, all at once; the combining of things; the bringing together of all those things that we variously call sensation, and thought, and passion, by whatever names we call them; and any poetry that isn’t concrete is going to be a flawed poetry.

James Dickey on Philip Larkin

From Franklin Ashley’s interview of James Dickey in “The Art of Poetry No. 20” (The Paris Review: Spring 1976, No. 65):

INTERVIEWER: We’ve talked a good deal about American poets, but English poets are always on the scene; some critics contend that the best contemporary English poet is Philip Larkin.

DICKEY: Oh, my Lord. Philip Larkin is a small kind of vers de société writer. He’s one of these Englishmen of the welfare state who write self-effacing poems about how much he hates his record collection. That’s not what we need. We need something that will affirm the basic possibility. This self-effacing stuff is so goddamned easy, it’s tiresome.

James Dickey on the personalities of poets

From Franklin Ashley’s interview of James Dickey in “The Art of Poetry No. 20” (The Paris Review: Spring 1976, No. 65):

INTERVIEWER: You’ve known a great many poets personally. Do you find some common characteristic—in their madness, their vision, their discipline?

DICKEY: I would have to put the answer in the form of a paradox. Most of them are what the world would call weak men and women. They are wayward, licentious, heavy drinkers, irresponsible, unable to maintain a household properly, and subject to unpredictable vagaries of conduct. But, turning the coin to its other side, the best of them are incredibly strong people who will drive headfirst through a steel wall to get their work done. This is the type of person I admire most. I admire the type as I do, I suspect, because I am one of them.

Poetry: Johnny Mercer’s “Early Autumn”

Man, these are beatiful, evocative lyrics by Johnny Mercer:

When an early autumn walks the land and chills the breeze
and touches with her hand the summer trees,
perhaps you’ll understand what memories I own.

There’s a dance pavilion in the rain all shuttered down,
a winding country lane all russet brown,
a frosty window pane shows me a town grown lonely.

That spring of ours that started so April-hearted,
seemed made for just a boy and girl.
I never dreamed, did you, any fall would come in view
so early, early.

Darling if you care, please, let me know,
I’ll meet you anywhere, I miss you so.
Let’s never have to share another early autumn.

David Foster Wallace on the importance of writing within formal constraints

From Larry McCaffery’s “Conversation with David Foster Wallace” (Dalkey Archive Press at the University of Illinois: Summer 1993):

You’re probably right about appreciating limits. The sixties’ movement in poetry to radical free verse, in fiction to radically experimental recursive forms—their legacy to my generation of would-be artists is at least an incentive to ask very seriously where literary art’s true relation to limits should be. We’ve seen that you can break any or all of the rules without getting laughed out of town, but we’ve also seen the toxicity that anarchy for its own sake can yield. It’s often useful to dispense with standard formulas, of course, but it’s just as often valuable and brave to see what can be done within a set of rules—which is why formal poetry’s so much more interesting to me than free verse. Maybe our touchstone now should be G. M. Hopkins, who made up his “own” set of formal constraints and then blew everyone’s footwear off from inside them. There’s something about free play within an ordered and disciplined structure that resonates for readers. And there’s something about complete caprice and flux that’s deadening.

From Philip Larkin’s “Aubade”

From Philip Larkin’s “Aubade“:

I work all day, and get half drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
– The good not used, the love not given, time
Torn off unused – nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never:
But at the total emptiness forever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says no rational being
Can fear a thing it cannot feel, not seeing
that this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no-one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

A grammarian’s haiku

So my friend Carrie is helping me edit my latest book in progress, and we got into an email discussion about the way I write & the edits she made. She sent me this haiku, which I thought was great:

I cannot abide
a run-on sentence, ever.
Sentence fragment, yes.

Wordsworth’s “spots of time”

From Wordsworth’s The Prelude 12.208-218 (1805 edition):

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence–depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse–our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.

A programmer’s poem

From dive into mark:

First, the poem itself (there are many versions, this is just one):

< > ! * ' ' #
^ " ` $ $ -
! * = @ $ _
% * < > ~ # 4
& [ ] . . /
| { , , system halted

In English, this reads:

waka waka bang splat tick tick hash
caret quote back-tick dollar dollar dash
bang splat equal at dollar under-score
percent splat waka waka tilda number four
ampersand bracket bracket dot dot slash
vertical-bar curly-bracket comma comma crash

Another awful poet

Scotland’s worst poet, William Topaz McGonagall: From “The Tay Bridge Disaster”:

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time. …

Or here’s a few lines from “Glasgow”:

And as for the statue of Sir Walter Scott that stands in George Square,
It is a handsome statue — few with it can compare,
And most elegant to be seen,
And close beside it stands the statue of Her Majesty the Queen. …

Read more at a site dedicated to William McGonagall, or just search Google. [William McGonagall]

She’s a poet and don’t know it

So I’m listening to Car Talk on NPR, hosted by Tom and Ray, AKA Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, and this woman calls in, and she says this:

Well hello, Click and Clack,
My name’s Mary Mack,
And I’m from Portland, Oregon.

And I thought, my God, but that scans really well. Try it — her meter really flows well. Very impressive.