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Randall Jarrell

You need to read good poetry with an attitude that is a mixture of sharp intelligence and willing emotional empathy, at once penetrating and generous. When you begin to read a poem you are entering a foreign country whose laws and language and life are a kind of translation of your own; but to accept it because its stews taste exactly like your old mother’s hash, or to reject it because the owl-headed goddess of wisdom in its temple is fatter than the Statue of Liberty, is an equal mark of that want of imagination, that inaccessibility to experience, of which each of us who dies a natural death will die.

— “The Obscurity of the Poet”

Rainer Maria Rilke

. . . You must know that I am not one of those who neglect the body so as to make of it an offering to the soul, for my soul would have no wish to be served in such a manner. All the soaring of my spirit begins in the blood, for which reason I let a pure and simple mode of living, free of narcotics and stimulants, go on ahead of my work like an introductory prelude; in this way I am not deceived of that true spiritual joy which is to be found in a happy and radiant communion with the whole of nature.

When I look into my conscience I see only one law, inexorably commanding: to enclose myself in myself and to complete at a stroke the task that was ordained from the centre of my heart. I obey.

— “Letter to a Young Girl”

John Ashbery

It was an example of how much one can grow lustily
Without fracturing the shell of coziness that surrounds us,
And all things as well. “We spend so much time
Trying to convince ourselves we’re happy that we don’t recognize
The real thing when it comes along,” the Disney official said.
He’s got a point, you must admit. If we followed nature
More closely we’d realize that, I mean really getting your face pressed
Into the muck and indecision of it. Then it’s as if
We grew out of our happiness, not the other way around, as is
Commonly supposed. We’re the characters in its novel,
And anybody who doubts that need only look out the window
Past his or her own reflection, to the bright, patterned,
Timeless unofficial truth hanging around out there,
Waiting for the signal to be galvanized into a crowd scene,
Joyful or threatening, it doesn’t matter, so long as we know
It’s inside, here with us.

— from “Someone You Have Seen Before,” from April Galleons

Measure for Measure, Act IV, Scene III

Barnardine is a bit kind of star part. We hear about him the entire play, a murderer who is to be executed, and he finally here makes his appearance, where he does not consent to be beheaded. Scholars read him as a figure of the artist.


ABHORSON. Is the axe upon the block, sirrah?
POMPEY. Very ready, sir.
BARNARDINE. How now, Abhorson, what’s the news with you?
ABHORSON. Truly, sir, I would desire you to clap into your prayers;
for, look you, the warrant’s come.
BARNARDINE. You rogue, I have been drinking all night; I am not
fitted for’t.
POMPEY. O, the better, sir! For he that drinks all night and is
hanged betimes in the morning may sleep the sounder all the next

Enter DUKE, disguised as before

ABHORSON. Look you, sir, here comes your ghostly father.
Do we jest now, think you?
DUKE. Sir, induced by my charity, and hearing how hastily you are
to depart, I am come to advise you, comfort you, and pray with
BARNARDINE. Friar, not I; I have been drinking hard all night, and
I will have more time to prepare me, or they shall beat out my
brains with billets. I will not consent to die this day, that’s
DUKE. O, Sir, you must; and therefore I beseech you
Look forward on the journey you shall go.
BARNARDINE. I swear I will not die to-day for any man’s persuasion.
DUKE. But hear you-
BARNARDINE. Not a word; if you have anything to say to me, come to
my ward; for thence will not I to-day.

DUKE. Unfit to live or die. O gravel heart!
After him, fellows; bring him to the block.

Kakuzo Okakura

Definition is always limitation,—the “fixed” and “unchangeless” are but terms expressive of a stoppage of growth. Said Ch’u Yuan: “The sages move the world.” Our standards of morality are begotten of the past needs of society, but is society to remain always the same? The observance of communal traditions involves a constant sacrifice of the individual to the state. Education, in order to keep up the might delusion, encourages a species of ignorance. People are not taught to be really virtuous, but to behave properly. We are wicked because we are frightfully self-conscious. We never forgive others because we know that we ourselves are in the wrong. We nurse a conscience because we are afraid to tell the truth to others; we take refuge in pride because we are afraid to tell the truth to ourselves. How can one be serious with the world when the world is so ridiculous!

— The Book of Tea

M.M. Bakhtin

The destruction of one’s own image in another’s eyes, the sullying of that image in another’s eyes as an ultimate desperate effort to free oneself from the power of the other’s consciousness and to break through to one’s self for the self alone—this, in fact, is the orientation of the Underground Man’s confession. For this reason he makes his discourse about himself deliberately ugly. He wants to kill in himself any desire to appear the hero in others’ eyes (and in his own): “I am no longer the hero to you now that I tried to appear before, but simply a nasty person, a scoundrel…”

— “Discourse in Dostoyevsky”

Alain Robbe-Grillet

[A]rt cannot be reduced to the status of a means in the service of a cause which transcends it, even if this cause were the most deserving, the most exalting; the artist puts nothing above his work, and he soon comes to realize that he can create only *for nothing*; the least external directive paralyzes him, the least concern for didacticism, or even for signification, is an insupportable constraint; whatever his attachment to his party or to generous ideas, the moment of creation can only bring him back to the problems of his art, and to them alone.

— “On Several Obsolete Notions”

Christian Wiman

Eliot’s description of writing as an “extinction of personality” . . . and I think some of Eliot’s more notorious critical pronouncements having to do with the objectification and impersonality of the artist . . . ought to be read at least in part as Eliot’s attempt to define . . . the ambivalence that most serious poets ultimately feel for their gift, which they wish would once and for all change them, or heal them, or just leave them to the unmediated life which they imagine words have led them away from.

. . .

The difficulties of form, which if clung to beyond a certain point turn what was defense and refuge into an inescapable cage, must become the difficulties of life itself, one’s craft adapted to and altered within what Keats called “the van of circumstance,” one’s passion for poetry transformed—but not attenuated, never relaxed—into a passion for life.

— from “Finishes: On Ambition and Survival”

Lewis Hyde

The artist’s gift refines the materials of perception or intuition that have been bestowed upon him; to put it another way, if the artist is gifted, the gift increases the passage through the self. The artist makes something higher than what he has been given, and this, the finished work, is the third gift, the one offered to the world in general or directed back specifically to the “clan and homeland” of an earlier gift.

— from The Gift

Maurice Manning

Now he raises a limestone fist to blind
the moon and wheels around like a stranded
king, horseless, vaingloriously hoping
the God of Rain still approves of him,
or else will drown his savage lust like a bug.

— from “Act V, scene iv,” from Lawrence Booth’s Book of Visions

Howard Nemerov on Wallace Stevens

The true inheritance, if we are able to see it, is a world already transformed, the lucid realization of one among infinite possibilities of transformation, of projection from the shadowy presence at the center. Concerning this he quoted from Whitehead these rather cryptic words: “In a certain sense, everything is everywhere at all times, for every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location.” His comment on this: “These words [he says] are pretty obviously words from a level where everything is poetic, as if the statement that every location involves an aspect of itself in every other location produced in the imagination a universal iridesence, a dithering of presences and, say, a complex of differences.”

For some poets . . . the writing of poetry may become an elucidation of character, a spiritual exercise having for its chief object the discovery or invention of one’s character: Myself must I remake, Du musst dein Leben ändern, &c. Something of this sort appears in our poet also, and he said about it: “It’s the explanation of things that we make to ourselves that disclose our character; the subjects of one’s poems are the symbols of one’s self or of one of one’s selves.”

— From “The Bread of Faithful Speech—Wallace Stevens and the Voices of Imagination”

Walt Whitman

I swear they are all beautiful
Everyone that sleeps is beautiful, everything in the dim light is beautiful
The wildest and bloodiest is over, and all is peace.

Peace is always beautiful,
The myth of heaven indicates peace and night.

— from “The Sleepers”

T.S. Eliot on William Blake

The question about Blake the man is the question of the circumstances that concurred to permit this honesty in his work, and what circumstances define its limitations. The favouring conditions include these two: that, being early apprenticed to a manual operation, he was not compelled to acquire any other education in literature than he wanted, or to acquire it for any other reason than that he wanted it; and that, being a humble engraver, he had no journalistic-social career open to him.

There was, that is to say, nothing to distract him from his interests or to corrupt these interests: neither the ambitions of parents or wife, nor the standards of society, nor the temptations of success; nor was he exposed to imitation of himself by anyone else. These circumstances—not his supposed inspired and untaught spontaneity—are what make him innocent. [Education for the ordinary man] consist[s] largely in the acquisition of impersonal ideas which obscure what we really are and feel, what we really want, and what really excites our interest. [Blake] was naked, and saw man naked, and from teh centre of his own crystal.

— “William Blake”

Robert Lowell on Randall Jarrell

Randall was the only man I have ever met who could make other writers feel that their work was more important to him than his own. What he did was to make others feel that their realizing themselves was as close to him as his own self-realization, and that he cared as much about making the nature and goodness of someone else’s work understood, as he cared about making his own understood.

Randall had an uncanny clairvoyance for helping friends in subtle precarious moments—almost always as only he could help, with something written: critical sentences in a letter, or an unanticipated published book review. Twice or thrice, I think, he must have thrown me a lifeline. In his own life, he had much public acclaim and more private. The public, at least, fell cruelly short of what he deserved. Now that he is gone, I see clearly that the spark from heaven really struck and irradiated the lines and being of my dear old friend—his noble, difficult, and beautiful soul.

— from The Company They Kept

Hart Crane

If the poet is to be held completely to the already evolved and exploited sequences of imagery and logic—what field of added consciousness and increased perceptions (the actual province of poetry, if not lullabyes) can be expected when one has to relatively return to the alphabet every breath or so? In the minds of people who have sensitively read, seen and experienced a great deal, isn’t there a terminology something like short-hand as compared to usual descriptions and dialects, which the artist ought to be right in trusting as a reasonable connective agent toward fresh concepts, more inclusive evaluations?

— Letter to Harriet Monroe, October 1926

These are dull times for poetry…and I must admit that with all my present salutary circumstances my impulses in that direction are surprisingly low. A beautiful environement and economic security are far from compensating for a world of chaotic values and frightful spiritual depression. And I can’t derive any satisfaction in the spinning out of mere personal moods and attitudes.

—Letter to Eda Lou Walton, November 1931

Robert Duncan

But I’m not sure that all aspects of what determines our sense of evils and goods can can be reasond out and explaind. Some are life-intuitions, inner recognitions of what is appropriate to our nature, and may be obscure in its intent. But even these must be creative intuitions, for I would follow here Darwin’s insight that evolution has within it no “plan.” The concord of volitions is then an environment in which individual volitions so fit that they survive; which must always be reimagined, for from every paradise the terms of its not being free for new volition to thrive will become clear.

As in creating a Poetry as well as making poems, we seek to create an environment in which our own creative spirit fits. Projecting its own lawfulness

— Letter to Denise Levertov, July 28 1966

Jacob Klein

In a curious way we ourselves are, as it were, the watershed that divides the all-comprehensive domain of the familiar into that which belongs to nature and that which is the product of human artfulness. This division was not invented by, say Aristotle, but is itself…a natural division. Here again, nature connotes a horizontal relationship. The horizon within which events in nature are viewed…is the workmanship of human artisans, who, in turn, find the model for their proceedings and for the knowledge thereof—the model for their tekhne—in the workings of nature, the artist.

— “On the Nature of Nature”

Thomas Merton

He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self understanding, freedom, integrity and capacity to love will not have anything to give others. He will communciate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas. There is nothing more tragic in the modern world than the misuse of power and action to which men are driven by their own Faustian misunderstandings and misapprehensions. We have more power at our disposal today than we have ever had, and yet we are more alienated and estranged from the inner ground of meaning and of love than we have ever been. The result of this is evident.

— “Contemplation in a World of Action”

John Gardner

On the whole, the capacity for recognizing the significant is a gift. It helps not to be a dupe, to be, instead, a person of independent mind, not carried away by fads; and it may help to be a slow, deep thinker rather than a brilliant, facile one. If the young writer is by nature a foolish person, his chances are bad though perhaps, to tell the truth, not all that bad. Every teacher of middle age or more can count up instances of highly successful former students who, as freshmen or sophomores, even juniors or seniors, seemed silly beyond all hope of reclamation. People change, sometimes because of outside forces—sickness, a failed marriage, a shattering family death, sometimes love or success—sometimes from a gradual process of maturing or reconsideration.

— “The Writer’s Nature”

Virginia Woolf

I should implore you to remember your responsibilities, to be higher, more spiritual; I should remind you how much depends on you, and what an influence you can exert upon the future. But those exhortations can safely, I think, be left to the other sex, who will put them, and indeed have put them, with far greater eloquence than I can compass. When I rummage in my own mind I find no noble sentiments about being companions and equals and influencing the world to higher ends. I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else. Do not dream of influencing other people, I would say, if I knew how to make it sound exalted. Think of things in themselves.

— A Room of One’s Own