Poetry Criticism

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 undermining 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

…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

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

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

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

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