“What is Poetry?”
Forum and Century, October 1934
What is called poetry in everyday parlance I would divide into four classes: pure poetry, literature in verse, literate verse, and utilitarian verse. What used to be called doggerel is seldom written any more or, if written, is rarely printed, literate and utilitarian verse having taken its place in the favor of those who cannot entirely understand poetry. Literate verse, being imitation poetry written by people with a literary turn and a knack of versifying, is a formidable enemy of real poetry. The last class, utilitarian verse, is a legitimate form of writing: as a method of passing on homely maxims, New Year’s resolutions, and commonplace ethical doctrines, it is pleasant enough reading, even for the critical, provided it is not written by real poets but by newspaper columnists. Besides all this, it is generally in rime, and since the beginning of language words riming at the ends of lines have given mankind very great pleasure. But when utilitarian verse is written by real poets, as it was frequently by the great Victorians, it can become absolutely maddening in its insincerity.
Oh! teach the orphan-boy to read,
Or teach the orphan-girl to sew,”
Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time;
Utilitarian verse is of all kinds the most popular, and many highly cultivated people who read the classics such as Horace and Hesiod, read them for their utilitarian side rather than their poetry. Many of those who formed Wordsworth’s following when he was considered a daring reformer admired him, as Matthew Arnold has pointed out, for the wrong things — for what they imagined was his philosophy, for the ideas which they thought he propounded, such as that things were getting better and better and that some day all would be right in the world. In fact any poet who in addition to writing poetry can pander to that great and fantastic illusion of men, that as time goes on there will be less and less necessity for any kind of struggle and that unalloyed happiness will sometime, somewhere, be the lot of all, is sure of a large following. Even a real poet might conceivably pander to such an illusion, for, as every reader of poetry knows and as A. E. Housman has stated in words of the simplest clarity, there may be many other things in a poem as well as poetry.
Some say the world will end with fire.
Some say with ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I feel with those who favor fire;
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate,
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
A DEFINITION OF POETRY
Nobody has ever made a memorable definition of poetry. People have made memorable comments on it or memorable descriptions of it, and several of these will leap at once to the mind of the reader: Wordsworth’s — that poetry springs from emotion recollected in tranquillity; Matthew Arnold’s — that it is natural magic; Milton’s — that it is something subtle, sensuous, and passionate; Poe’s — that its value lies in its elevating excitement and that, as this excitement cannot be sustained in a long poem, the phrase “a long poem” is a contradiction in terms. as “not the thing said but a way of saying it” as sheer definition would be hard to beat. Nevertheless the best description of poetry is not by any of the poets but by a critic who as far as I know never wrote a line of poetry — the late Henri Bremond. “Every poem,” he said, “owes its peculiarly poetic character to the presence, to the radiance, to the transforming and unifying action of a mysterious reality which we call pure poetry.”
Prose, also, to be sure, when it is literature has a mysterious reality which unifies it and irradiates it. But the mysterious reality of prose differs from the reality of poetry in that one can apprehend it through the eyes from the printed page. Poetry, however, can get only partly to the mind from the printed page; it can be really apprehended only by the ear, through the voice, for all poetry — even philosophic poetry — was and is written for an instrument, and that instrument is the human voice. This is the real difference between prose and poetry, this is the real tyranny of the poet; and not the law of poetic truth and poetic beauty that Matthew Arnold told us about nor the poetic diction nor the tuning of language that the age of Dryden and Pope thought so much of, not the rime that Milton scorned, that Verlaine mocked at, that Wordsworth struggled with, and that Chaucer lamented about — not any of these nor all of these, but just this one thing: that all poetry is made to be interpreted by the voice. It must not be assumed from this, however, that nothing of the mysterious reality of poetry can be got from the printed page: a part of it can get to the mind just as a piece of music that was meant for an orchestra gets partly to the mind even if played on only one instrument.
Efforts have been made by modern poets, by the cubists, the imagists, the sur-realists, and the other ists to make poetry with a physical, typographical appeal to the eye, with the lines sculptured or shaped, with the page so arranged that it will have something of the appeal of a drawing or of sculpture:
motivated by midnight
the flyspecked abdominous female
emitting minute grins
each an intaglio.
, I have not the slightest hesitation in saying, is not poetry at all, though it may be some other form of literature indescribable at the moment and though this author (E. E. Cummings) may have written poetry elsewhere. Readers familiar with the extreme modern movement know that this sort of writing is often put forward as poetry. But what poetry really is was all settled — immovably settled — long, long ago; and the different forms it has taken throughout the ages have had not one particle of effect on this.
The first poem was the magical incantation, and behind all poetry there has to be the magical incantation — the voice saying something rhythmically out of the depths of the subconscious and conveying its meaning not to the reason or the intelligence or the intellect but to all the powers of the mind and body working in some mysterious unison. There can be other things in poetry — there must, as a rule, be other things in poetry — along with the incantation. The incantation itself can be so covered up or hidden with what the poet clothes it in that it is often hardly apparent. It may show itself only here and there in separate lines or in the use of proper names, or again it may not show itself in separate lines or stanzas but only in the total poem. It may show itself in the general rhythm or only in the rimes, but wherever it is and whatever it is, it is the one thing absolutely necessary to the poem. A poem can be poetry without anything else, with only that magic, that mysterious reality; but a very great poem naturally has many other things. As well as being magic it has to be literature, and literature is about the thoughts and dreamings and relations of men — the lacrimae rerum, the tears of human things — whereas magic, especially in great poetry, is apt to be beyond all human things.
The insistence of one school of poets that poetry really need mean nothing at all, or nothing that can be grasped by our surface sensibilities or surface mind and imagination — that it can in fact be nonsense — is perfectly sound as far as it goes, though it is of course one-sided. For all great poetry, or almost all great poetry, is literature as well as magic, has literature wound up in its magic, so that we can give an explanation of it partly comprehensible to the intellect and surface sensibilities. But the idea that it is not really explicable represents a wholesome reaction to the portentous values that critics have been placing on poetry possessing a content accessible to the surface powers of the mind and to the reason.
Poems like Blake’s and have very little meaning that can be explained to the rational powers of the mind, yet to anybody sensitive to poetry both these poems have a meaning powerfully penetrating to the general outfit of the personality — to the imagination, the emotions, the nerves, the blood itself, but above all to the deeps of memory:
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.
The difference between the incomprehensibleness of this sort of poetry and the incomprehensibleness of the work of the more extreme moderns is that these latter appeal neither to our surface sensibilities nor to the deeps of personality; they have no magic, and their work is, therefore, not poetry at all. The authors have a vocabulary and diction as remote from the language of men, of a man speaking to men, as the poetic diction of the ages of prose and reason.
You are like the meditative man.
With the perfunctionary heart; its
Carved cordiality ran
To and fro at first, like an inlaid and royal
(by Marianne Moore, who has elsewhere written recognizable poetry) are no more poetry than the dull, emotionless verse of those theorists of the eighteenth century who were guided by the rules of the various Arts of Poetry.
ARTS OF POETRY
Arts of poetry are not always irrelevant. Even the most pedantic of them, like those by Gottsched and Chapelain, or the most literary, like those of Malherbe and Boileau, without going back to the Greek and Latin, have something sound if not illuminating, from which a real poet might be able to get some sense of design. As a matter of fact every age has its own Arts of Poetry, whether written or unwritten, and, if the writer has the poetic magic to start with, the application of abstract doctrines may help to an effective structure. Where, however, there is no poetry or magic, theories alone — theories of form, of content, of language — can result only in the unexciting verse of some of our contemporaries.
It is an interesting fact that practically none of the theories influencing present-day poets are modern in the sense of being contemporary. Indeed the most up-to-date of them are a combination of the theories expressed by Wordsworth in the preface to the and the theories of a group of French poets who wrote through the nineteenth century, principally Baudelaire, Verlaine, Laforgue, Rimbaud, and Mallarmé. The most celebrated of Wordsworth’s theories, that the language of poetry should be a selection of the very language spoken by men — the poet being a man speaking to men — is the guiding principle of poets as widely different as Yeats, Valéry, Housman, T, S, Eliot, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Robert Frost, These poets have used not only the language of ordinary conversation; some of them have used the rhythms of the folk songs and the popular songs that the ordinary man has made for his diversion. In T.S. Eliot’s you will find not only the everyday talk of men drinking in a pub but the rhythms and meters of popular and vaudeville songs like , , and
Under the boo,
Under the bamboo tree,
Where the Gaugin maids
In the banyan shades
Wear palm-leaf drapery.
It is, to be sure, unfair to quote only a few lines like the above, because Fragment of an Agon, taken altogether, is not only poetry of a kind, but it has that quality which the moralizing Matthew Arnold thought was the property of all high poetry: that is, it is a criticism of life, a sardonic criticism — the criticism of life that is lacking in great and magical poetry like the or . This sort of poetry with its mixture of irony, melancholy, and mystification was written in the seventies and eighties in France by Tristan Corbière and Jules Laforgue, and while it has been developed by Eliot in such a way that it seems to give a special liberation of expression to the modern mind it has very rarely the accents of great poetry. It is a sort of inverted lyricism; the cry of the heart is there, but it is mocked at ironically by the intellect. It seems odd enough that to so many in a world where Yeats, Hardy, and Paul Valéry were yet living and writing should seem the greatest modern poem. But it gave a sort of expression to the age which awoke an excited response, and in our time it happens that the most famous writers are not the greatest but the ones who, as it is said, “interpret the age to itself.”
The irony, the mockery, the deliberate obscurity of this sort of poetry was taken over from French poets who were on the one hand in rebellion against the rational clarity of their language and on the other dazzled by the mocking wit of Heine. The rebellion against clarity has been of dubious benefit when transferred to English, where the half-said thing, the suggested thing, the evocative, the dream word is so thoroughly in the genius of the language. English poetry is often obscure to the surface powers of the mind, but that sort of obscurity which adds a glamour to the French of Mallarmé and Valéry is apt in their English-writing disciples to become mere unintelligibility. One can read over and over again verse like Mallarmé’s or and at each reading get more out of it, because the obscurity is that of a poet trying to find a language which will suggest rather than name things and will reveal the dream of the poet. But the oftener one reads certain poems of E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, and Carlos Williams, the less there comes through, although these are all poets who on occasions have written effective verse and on others, under the slavery of theory, have written sheer nonsense — not the magical nonsense of poets like Blake or Mallarmé but the nonsense of prosy unintelligibility. Obscurity may sometimes be an effect of great poetry, but unintelligibility gives merely the effect of badly wrought prose.
THE INFLUENCE OF EZRA POUND
To one reading what will certainly come to be looked upon as the first really characteristic American poetry, that of T.S. Eliot and Archibald MacLeish —in manner, I mean, rather than in substance — and asking, “Who initiated this manner?” “Who fished the murex up?” the answer would have to be Ezra Pound. To one asking who brought this Heinesque mockery, this macabre irony into modern English verse, the answer would be Ezra Pound. Who is the critic who has exercised the most outstanding influence on the left-wing writers of England, Ireland, and America? The answer is Ezra Pound. He has indeed exercised on many of his contemporaries such an influence that if there had been a more highly organized intellectual life in America he might have been a great critic, a power in the land, instead of a somewhat eccentric exile.
But not all the tributes to his poetry, from any of the best-known living writers, printed on the cover of can convince me that there are more than about a hundred lines of passable poetry in the whole volume. Would it be any harm to ask the writers of these tributes exactly what they have in mind? Will Mr. Ernest Hemingway, who tells us that the best writing in these cantos will last as long as literature, point out to us what he calls this best which is to stand up by all the great poetry of the ages ? Will Mr. Ford Madox Ford, himself a genuine poet, indicate to us where he finds what he calls “the extraordinary, the matchless beauty of these cantos”? Will Mr. Allen Tate, who informs us that these cantos are one of the three great works of poetry of our time and will doubtless be the most glorious, show where to find the glory? Mr. James Joyce, Mr. T. S. Eliot, Mr. Archibald MacLeish, also quoted on the cover, are vaguer in their praise, seeming to indicate that they regard Mr. Pound as a great influence rather than a poet. As one who is an extensive reader of poetry I make these interrogations in all sincerity, for if there is great poetry in these cantos I am unable to find it. I am in fact, able to find hardly any poetry at all.
The idea behind the cantos is plain enough — a history of civilization beginning where civilization started, on the shores of the Mediterranean: a sardonic history of civilization mostly from its seamy side and from its characteristic trivialities. It is an interesting idea, but one does not make poetry with ideas, no matter how comprehensive or penetrating they may be. A great epic poet might have so much poetry in his spirit that he could make an idea like this a handy serving maid to his poetry. But the idea so confounds the author of XXX Cantos that it looks as if he thought it meet to set down any little fancy, any rambling rumination, any remembered line of literature or history that came vagrantly into his mind and that the result would be radiant poetry. The following lines taken from “Canto XII ” have an intelligible symbolism behind them:
Said Jim X . . .
There once was a pore honest sailor, a heavy drinker,
A hell of a cuss, a rowster, a boozer, and
The drink finally sent him to hospital,
And they operated, and there was a poor whore in
The woman’s ward had a kid, while
They were fixing the sailor, and they brought him the
When he came to, and said:
“Here! this is what we took out of you.”
But the symbolism is commonplace, and the resulting lines are prose; no adroitness in cutting them into metrical shapes can give them the semblance of poetry. On the other hand the writing of the vigorous little short story, of which the above lines are the opening, in nicely cut lines, each with a vague interior rhythm and assonance, seems to me to be a really important reform in narrative — a reform which began in American writing nearly two decades ago and which was initiated by Robert Frost in his short stories. Home Burial and The Death of the Hired Man, written in blank verse with a vigor and compactness unattainable in prose. From these brief narratives which were literature in verse it was only a step to the stories in concentrated prose printed in shaped lines which became a fashion.
Robinson Jeffers’ novels and novelettes printed with the typographical aspect of verse are a product of the confusion of concentrated prose with verse and poetry. As a specimen I give the following lines from :
On the pleasant water
Michael had called to Fayne, “I’ve something for
Come here a minute.” She hardly dared, and thought
In the flashing joy of the sea, “Oh, the water covers
What have you got?” “Gin for girls.
We’ve got a fire on this side.” They met laughing,
And reached the bottle from hand to hand and
Separate again. Fayne looked towards shore, and saw
the vast cliff in the flare of the sundown
Like beaten gold, the imperfect moon-disk gold on
its brow; the tiny distinct shapes of men
Around their spot of fire in the flat blue sea-shadow.
Now this is not poetry but reformed prose — fine, vigorous prose with memories of verse behind it. Occasionally, to be sure, Jeffers gives us lines which have the magic of poetry, which can stand up to the test of poetry — that of being read by the voice.
These loose rhythms, whether in prose or verse, represent one of the outstanding contributions of the American mind to literary expression. What this country has to express is so different from what Europe has expressed that the old modes of prose and verse which did duty to express long-remembered and long-familiar things were both too bounded and too far-reaching to provide artistic norms for the revelation of this new type of mind. The old molds had to be broken, and the breaking was begun by Walt Whitman. The tendency of all the most characteristically American writers since Whitman has been in the same direction. The style of writing of MacLeish, Eliot, Jeffers, Frost, and Pound would be an absolute impossibility for a writer born and bred in any European country and yet at the same time would be equally an impossibility for an American who was not saturated in European literature and tradition. That is to say the most characteristically American writing is not the wild, the woolly, and the roughneck, it is the sophisticated, the sophisticated product of writers who have half their roots in Europe.