Poetry Criticism


Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind --

by Emily Dickinson


The Riddle we can guess
We speedily despise—
Not anything is stale so long
As Yesterday’s surprise—

by Emily Dickinson

Exuberance is beauty. -- William Blake
Energy is eternal delight. -- William Blake
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is 
the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a 
stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe,
is as good as dead —his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery
of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to 
religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, 
manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty,
which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive 
forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true 
religiousness. -- Albert Einstein

We live in a society where the indirect, the difficult, the implicit are 
not valued. But is the answer to abandon them in favor of their opposites, 
in order to get a hearing? That seems to defeat the purpose... Subtlety 
and depth require tact, time, and sheer hard work, not likely to find favor 
in a culture that demands instant gratification, prefers the loud and the 
blatant over the quiet and tentative, and is impatient of the idea that 
nothing good is achieved without a battle. That’s not propitious for poetry, 
and it’s that we should hope to be able to change. -- Iain McGilchrist
I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose 
and poetry; that is, prose—-words in their best order; poetry—-the best 
words in their best order.
 —- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found 
words. -- Robert Frost

A poem is a small (or large) machine made out of words." 
-- William Carlos Williams

Poetry isn’t a profession, it’s a way of life. It’s an empty basket; you 
put your life into it and make something out of that. -- Mary Oliver

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is 
not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. 
But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it 
means to want to escape from these things. -- T.S. Eliot

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: 
it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion 
is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually 
disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of 
contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in 
the mind. -- William Wordsworth

As a guiding principle I believe that every poem must be its own sole 
freshly created universe, and therefore have no belief in ‘tradition’ 
or a common myth-kitty or casual allusions in poems to other poems or 
poets, which last I find unpleasantly like the talk of literary under-
strappers letting you see they know the right people. -- Philip Larkin

Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes 
your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, 
makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss 
and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own. -- Dylan Thomas

I have written down my experience in the closest detail. But the rough and vulgar facts are not there. —Louise Bogan

In [Louise Bogan’s] view, the farther the art of language detached itself from the actuality of experience while remaining alive to its ungraspable and anarchic magnitude, the more richly that art justified its claim to approximate and even displace experience.” — Elizabeth Frank

Before people complain of the obscurity of modern poetry, they should first examine their consciences and ask themselves with how many people and on how many occasions they have genuinely and profoundly shared some experience with another; they might also ask themselves how much poetry of any period they can honestly say that they understand. —W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand (1955), In the BBC weekly The Listener (30 June 1955)

Poetry should disturb: not aggressively, but by bewildering or under-
mining the settled categories within which most people, most of the 
time, find it expedient to fit life to feel comfortable.  True 
writing, like true reading, is among other things a solitary deed of 
courage. -- Andrew Waterman

The business of the poet and novelist is to show the sorriness underlying the grandest things, and the grandeur underlying the sorriest things. — Thomas Hardy, Oct. 17, 1885

…Society depends on the poet to witness something, and yet the poet can discover that thing only by looking away from what society has learned to see poetically.  Thus, there is a dialectic between the poet and culture: the culture presents us with poetry, and with implicit definitions of what materials and means are poetic. The answer we must promise to give is “no.” Real works revise the received idea of what poetry is; by mysterious cultural means the revisions are assimilated and then presented as the next definition to be resisted, violated and renewed. What poets must answer for is the unpoetic… — Robert Pinsky in “Responsibilites of the Poet.”

…I think that an intelligent poetry is a poetry whose author has given a great deal of slow and silent attention to the problems of craft: that is, how to say something and say it in a musical way, but I feel that ultimately any writer has to come to terms with ethical and epistemological questions about the meaning of life and of his life… –James Wright

…There so many different ways that language can come alive or be brought alive that is silly to limit the kinds of poetry there could be. I think it is enough to say that there is, in our lives, a genius of place and so, appropriately, we sometimes value a poetry of place. — James Wright

[William Carlos] Williams asserts, “a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words.” Emphasizing a poem’s composition and movement rather than its content, he states, “There is no poetry of distinction without formal invention, for it is in the intimate form that works of art achieve their exact meaning, in which they most resemble the machine, to give language its highest dignity, its illumination in the environment to which it is native.” — Poetry Foundation

…Imaginative, linguistic and rhythmical vitality all collaborate whenever a poet achieves that pitch of definition and resonance readily recognisable as excellence, if more complex to explicate. Memorability, an associated quality, is another basic test. — Andrew Waterman

Movement: one of the hardest things a beginner (an honest one) has to learn is how to sustain the energy of a poem: in other words, the basic rhythm. He may have variety of fresh subject matter, slick imagery, sharp epithets, but if he can’t make the words move, he has nothing. — Theodore Roethke

Poetry is rhythm—and through rhythm, has its roots deep in the nature of the universe; the rhythms of the stars, the rhythm of the earth moving around the sun, of day, night, of the seasons, of the sowing and the harvest, of fecundity and birth. The rhythms of poetry give continuity and pattern to words, to thoughts, strengthening them, adding the qualities of permanence, and relating the written word to to the vast rhythms of life. — Langston Hughes

[Louise Bogan] …shapes emotion into an inevitable-seeming, an endurable, form… Her poems can be read and reread: they keep yielding new meanings, as all good poetry should. The ground beat of the great tradition can be heard, with the necessary subtle variations… — Theodore Roethke

The presenter here is a bit on the perky side but what he says is accurate and clear and is based on poet Robert Pinsky’s excellent “The Sound of Poetry”:

The excellence of every Art is its intensity. -- John Keats

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm 
me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head 
were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. 
Is there any other way? -- Emily Dickinson

Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree … poetry … is the most concentrated form of verbal expression. — Ezra Pound

Music rots when it gets too far from the dance. Poetry atrophies when it 
gets too far from music. --Ezra Pound

Artists are the antennae of the race… artists are the antennae; an animal that neglects the warnings of its perceptions needs very great powers of resistance if it is to survive… A nation which neglects the perceptions of its artists declines… Artists and poets undoubtedly get excited and ‘overexcited’ about things long before the general public. Before deciding whether a man is a fool or a good artist, it would be well to ask, not only: ‘is he excited unduly’, but: ‘does he see something we don’t?’ –Ezra Pound

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

William Carlos Williams, in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower”

You can learn more of nineteenth-century America from Whitman than from any of the writers who either refrained from perceiving, or limited their record to what they had been taught to consider suitable literary expression. –Ezra Pound

In a good short poem a fine sense of relations among its parts is 
felt, word connecting with word, line with line: as with a spider web,
touch it at any part and the whole structure responds. And because 
this whole of interconnected parts may be balanced in the mind at 
once, the relations of a great many of the parts to one another and to
the whole become more readily perceptible. --Donald Justice

The short poem necessarily lacks the sweep, the accumulative grandeur of some novels, but it compensates in part for this and other lacks by engaging the senses more directly, that is, by keeping the form always before the ear (through rhythm) and, incidentally, in printed verse, the eye … This constant sense in poetry that an arrangement of materials has been effected, that an order has been imposed or revealed, that, in short, a form of one sort or another is importantly present and that it is there to be perceived in its minute particulars–this helps to make the poetic experience seem from moment to moment more intense. –Donald Justice

In a poem the word can be used, as R. P. Blackmur argues, with “the sum of all its appropriate history made concrete and particular in the individual context; and in poetry all words act as if they were so used, because the only kind of meaning poetry can have requires that all its words resume their full life: the full life being modified and made unique by the qualifications the words perform one upon the other in the poem…”  It is the context–“the qualifications the words perform one upon the other”–which adds to the beauty perhaps inherent in the word itself its specifically poetical character. –Donald Justice

As you continue writing and rewriting, you begin to see possibilities
you hadn't seen before. Writing a poem is always a process of discovery. 
--Robert Hayden
What is a poet but a human being speaking to other human beings about 
things that matter to all of us? And of course some of these concerns
are social and political...But there are other matters that are also 
important. --Robert Hayden

Poetry does make something happen, for it changes sensibility. In the early stages of a culture it helps to crystallize language and is a repository for value, beliefs, ideals. The Griot in African tribes keeps names and legends and pride alive. Among the Eskimos the shaman or medicine man is a poet. In ancient Ireland and Wales the bard was a preserver of the culture. Acamedicians and purists to the contrary not withstanding, great poets of the past as well as the present have often been spokesmen for a cause, have been politically involved…to be a poet, it seems to me, is to care passionately about justice and one’s fellow beings.  –Robert Hayden

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is 
really a large matter—‘tis the difference between the lightning-bug 
and the lightning. -–Mark Twain

A book is a mirror: if an ass peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out. –Lichtenberg

[...] men, that is to say, are now writing only with the male side of their 
brains [...] It is the power of suggestion that one most misses, I thought, 
taking Mr B the critic in my hand and reading, very carefully and very 
dutifully, his remarks upon the art of poetry. Very able they were, acute 
and full of learning; but the trouble was that his feelings no longer 
communicated; his mind seemed separated into different chambers; not a 
sound carried from one to the other. Thus, when one takes a sentence of 
Mr B into the mind it falls plump to the ground--dead; but when one 
takes a sentence of Coleridge into the mind, it explodes and gives birth 
to all kinds of other ideas, and that is the only sort of writing of 
which one can say that it has the secret of perpetual life. 
                  --Virginia Woolf in A Room of One's Own, p.117

A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, 
satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death...  
                 --Paul Valery as translated from French by David Paul

Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much—the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing “there” and “their” and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may the audience. I don’t like hearing things in public, even music. In fact, I think poetry readings grew up on a false analogy with music: the text is the “score” that doesn’t “come to life” until it’s “performed.” It’s false because people can read words, whereas they can’t read music. When you write a poem, you put everything into it that’s needed: the reader should “hear” it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him. And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don’t think it stands up on the page. –Philip Larkin, in an interview with Robert Phillips in the Paris Review

Writing poetry is playing off the natural rhythms and word-order of 
speech against the artificialities of rhyme and metre... I think a 
poet should be judged by what he does with his subjects, not by what 
his subjects are... Poetry isn't a kind of paint-spray you use to 
cover selected subjects with. A good poem about failure is a success.
--Philip Larkin, in an interview with Robert Phillips in the Paris Review

How to Read a Poem: Poet Edward Hirsch begins at 9 min. 30 sec.

To see Donald Hall’s essay “Poetry and Ambition” [click here]

To see Dana Gioia’s essay “Can Poetry Matter? [click here].

To see a translation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s essay “Theory and Play of the Duende” [click here]