Essays on Poetic Theory

This section collects famous historical essays about poetry that have greatly influenced the art. Written by poets and critics from a wide range of historical, cultural, and aesthetic perspectives, the essays address the purpose of poetry, the possibilities of language, and the role of the poet in the world. They are arranged in chronological order.

Featured Essay Use This Word in a Sentence: “Experimental”
Many years ago I read something by Noam Chomsky in which three disparate words—“Constantinople” was one—that seemed to have nothing in common were brought together in a sentence. Chomsky wanted to show how context and syntax—that is, the structures of linguistic meaning—are as malleable . . .
By Ann Lauterbach

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2006
Cracks in the Oracle Bone: Teaching Certain Contemporary Poems
By Brenda Hillman
When I began to work on this lecture some time ago, I had just received an email saying that former Attorney General John Ashcroft, having retired from the Cabinet, was seriously hoping to be selected as Poet Laureate of the United States. Ashcroft’s best-known poem, “Let the Eagle Soar,” was used at President Bush’s swearing-in ceremony.

2005
Female Tradition as Feminist Innovation
By Annie Finch
Even at this late-postmodernist moment, when self-defined innovative poetry needs to build on a long tradition of previous self-defined innovative poetry, such poetry still defines itself in opposition to tradition. With an inheritance of genuine innovation, of poets who did everything they could to be different from any of their forebears, how does a poet today define writing in traditional form as innovative?

2005
Sight-Specific, Sound-Specific . . .
By Nathaniel Mackey
Performance is a bothersome word for writerly poets. Performance art, poetry slams, and the like have made the term synonymous with theatricality, a recourse to dramatic, declamatory, and other tactics aimed at propping up words or at helping them out—words regarded, either way, as needing help, support, embellishment, deficient or decrepit or even dead left on their own.

2000
Invisible Architecture
By Barbara Guest
                 There is an invisible architecture often supporting
   the surface of the poem, interrupting the progress of the poem. It reaches
into the poem
in search for an identity with the poem,

1998
The Poetics of Disobedience
By Alice Notley
For a long time I've seen my job as bound up with the necessity of noncompliance with pressures, dictates, atmospheres of, variously, poetic factions, society at large, my own past practices as well. For a long time--well in fact since the beginning, since I learned how to be a poet inside the more rebellious wing of poetry; though learning itself meant a kind of disobedience, so like most words the Dis word, the Dis form, cannot be worshipped either--and that would be an obedience anyway.

1993
Someone is Writing a Poem
By Adrienne Rich
In a political culture of managed spectacles and passive spectators, poetry appears as a rift, a peculiar lapse, in the prevailing mode. The reading of a poem, a poetry reading, is not a spectacle, nor can it be passively received.

1985
The Rejection of Closure
By Lyn Hejinian
“‘The Rejection of Closure’ was originally written as a talk and given at 544 Natoma Street, San Francisco, on April 17, 1983. The “Who Is Speak­ing?” panel discussion had taken place several weeks earlier, and with the ‘Poetry & Philosophy’ issue of Poetics Journal (volume 3) about to come out, Barrett Watten and I had just decided to devote Poetics Journal 4 to the theme of ‘Women & Language.’ Within the writing community, discus­sions of gender were frequent, and they were addressed both to percep­tible practical problems (instances of injustice) immediately affecting people’s work and lives and to longer-term questions of power and, in particular, the ethics of meaning.”

1982
The Triggering Town
By Richard Hugo
“You hear me make extreme statements like ‘don’t communicate’ and ‘there is no reader.’ While these state­ments are meant as said, I presume when I make them that you can communicate and can write clear English sentences. I caution against communication because once language exists only to convey information, it is dying.”

1979
The Flower of Capital
By Michael Palmer
“The flower of capital is small and white large and grey-green in a storm its petals sing. (This refers to capital with the capital L.) Yesterday I borrowed Picabia’s Lagonda for a drive through the Bois. A heavy mist enveloped the park so that we could barely discern the outline of a few silent figures making their way among the sycamores and elms. Emerging at Porte de Neuilly the air grew suddenly clear and ahead to my right I noticed M pushing a perambulator before her with a distracted mien. Her hair fell disheveled about her face, her clothes were threadbare, and every few steps she would pause briefly and look about as if uncertain where she was.”

1967
The Fire
By Robin Blaser
“I am writing here about my poetry in relation to poetry. The writing had an occasion: for a few in San Francisco, where I read it last March 8th [1967]. I want to talk about the personalism and the co-called obscurity of my poems in relation to the sight, sound, and intellect that compose them. ‘The test of poetry,’ in Zukofsky’s words, ‘is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection.’”

1965
200 Years of Afro-American Poetry
By Langston Hughes
“Poets and versifiers of African descent have been publishing poetry on American shores since the year 1746 when a slave woman named Lucy Terry penned a rhymed description of an Indian attack on the town of Deerfield, Massachusetts, a quarter of a century before the revolt of the New England colonies against Britain. And it was a Negro woman, Phillis Wheatley, who in one of her poems applied the oft quoted phrase ‘First in Peace’ to General George Washington before he became the first President of the United States, From his rebel field encampment the General sent the young poetess a note which read in part, ‘If you should ever come to Cambridge or near headquarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the Muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations.’”

1965
California Lecture: from “Poetry and Politics”
By Jack Spicer
“You’ve all read your morning paper, and you know what’s happening as far as our escalator or whatever it’s called in Vietnam. This is not what I’m trying to talk about. What’s I’m trying to talk about is for you people who are poets and want some idea about how the strategy is for you to become poets who both write good poetry and also don’t sell out to the bosses. There are bosses in poetry as well as in the industrial empire and everything else, and what I want to talk to you about today is simply that—how to manage yourself in your own individual way, I guess, since no poet who’s worthy of the term doesn’t. But also, where to avoid mistakes that one has, say, the mistake of saying 'Gee, I’m a great poet and somebody wants to print me.' And you have say, five, six poems. They’re good, but they aren’t that good, and so forth. What do you do?”

1965
Some Notes on Organic Form
By Denise Levertov
“For me, back of the idea of organic form is the concept that there is a form in all things (and in our experience) which the poet can discover and reveal. There are no doubt temperamental differences between poets who use prescribed forms and those who look for new ones—people who need a tight sched­ule to get anything done, and people who have to have a free hand—but the difference in their conception of ‘content’ or ‘reality’ is functionally more important.”

1965
Vancouver Lectures: from "Dictation and 'A Textbook of Poetry'"
By Jack Spicer
“Well, I really ought to explain the structure of the three lecture/readings, more than is on the flyer that some of you saw. Essentially what’s going to happen is that each evening I’m going to read some of my work. In each reading there’s going to be a discussion of the problems that have to do with poets as far as I see what the problems are with poets. And they’re pretty much in order of importance. I think the problem of poetic dictation is perhaps the first problem a poet has. The second problem—one you can’t really “get” too well without understanding what poetic dictation is or isn’t—is a serial poem. And the third lecture on Thursday night will be a sort of an autopsy or a looking at the growth of a poem I’m writing now—the problems of a person in the middle of a poem, what comes up to make things different. In other words, I’m rather assuming that all of you are interested directly as poets in the writing of poetry, and I’m not going to talk about aesthetic theory except where I think it has something to do with the problems of anyone writing poetry.”

1963
Expressive Language
By Amiri Baraka
Speech is the effective form of a culture. Any shape or cluster of human history still apparent in the conscious and unconscious habit of groups of people is what I mean by culture. All culture is necessarily profound. The very fact of its longevity, of its being what it is, culture, the epic memory of practical tradition, means that it is profound. But the inherent profundity of culture does not necessarily mean that its uses (and they are as various as the human condition) will be profound. German culture is profound. Generically. Its uses, however, are specific, as are all uses . . . of ideas, inventions, products of nature. And specificity, as a right and passion of human life, breeds what it breeds as a result of context.

1963
The Mind’s Own Place
By George Oppen
“Sargent is reported to have said to Renoir that he painted ‘cads in the park.’ And Sargent was of course quite right. The passion of the Im­pressionists to see, and to see more clearly was a desire to see past the subject matter and the art attitudes of the academy. It is true that the artist is not dependent on his subject in the sense that he can be judged by its intrinsic interest, or that the discussion of his work can become a discussion of its subject. But the emotion which creates art is the emotion that seeks to know and to disclose.”

1956
Jazz as Communication
By Langston Hughes
“You can start anywhere—Jazz as Communication—since it’s a circle, and you yourself are the dot in the middle. You, me. For example, I’ll start with the Blues. I’m not a Southerner. I never worked on a levee. I hardly ever saw a cotton field except from the highway. But women behave the same on Park Avenue as they do on a levee: when you’ve got hold of one part of them the other part escapes you. That’s the Blues!”

1950
Projective Verse
By Charles Olson
“I want to do two things: first, try to show what projective or OPEN verse is, what it involves, in its act of composition, how, in distinction from the non-projective, it is accomplished; and II, suggest a few ideas about what stance toward reality brings such verse into being, what the stance does, both to the poet and to his reader. (The stance involves, for example, a change beyond, and larger than, the technical, and may, the way things look, lead to a new poetics and to new concepts from which some sort of drama, say, or of epic, perhaps, may emerge.)”

1948
The Poem as a Field of Action
By William Carlos Williams
“I’m going to say one thing to you—for a week! And I hope to God when I’m through that I’ve succeeded in making you understand me. It concerns the poem as a field of action, at what pitch the battle is today and what may come of it.”

1944
Introduction to The Wedge
By William Carlos Williams
“Critics of rather better than average standing have said in recent years that after socialism has been achieved it’s likely there will be no further use for poetry, that it will disappear. This comes from nothing else than a faulty definition of poetry—and the arts generally. I don’t hear anyone say that mathematics is likely to be outmoded, to disappear shortly. Then why poetry?”

1926
The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain
By Langston Hughes
“One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, ‘I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,’ meaning, I believe, ‘I want to write like a white poet’; meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be a white poet’; meaning behind that, ‘I would like to be white.’ And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet.”

1925
Composition as Explanation
By Gertrude Stein
There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are all looking. By this I mean so simply that anybody knows it that composition is the difference which makes each and all of them then different from other generations and this is what makes everything different otherwise they are all alike and everybody knows it because everybody says it.

1920
Hamlet
By T. S. Eliot
“Few critics have even admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary. And Hamlet the character has had an especial temptation for that most dangerous type of critic: the critic with a mind which is naturally of the creative order, but which through some weakness in creative power exercises itself in criticism instead. These minds often find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their own artistic realization. Such a mind had Goethe, who made of Hamlet a Werther; and such had Coleridge, who made of Hamlet a Coleridge; and probably neither of these men in writing about Hamlet remembered that his first business was to study a work of art.”

1920
Tradition and the Individual Talent
By T. S. Eliot
“In English writing we seldom speak of tradition, though we occasionally apply its name in deploring its absence. We cannot refer to ‘the tradition’ or to ‘a tradition’; at most, we employ the adjective in saying that the poetry of So-and-so is ‘traditional’ or even ‘too traditional.’ Seldom, perhaps, does the word appear except in a phrase of censure. If otherwise, it is vaguely approbative, with the implication, as to the work approved, of some pleasing archaeological reconstruction. You can hardly make the word agreeable to English ears without this comfortable reference to the reassuring science of archaeology.”

1919
The Poetry of the Present
By D. H. Lawrence
“It seems when we hear a skylark singing as if sound were running forward into the future, running so fast and utterly without consideration, straight on into futurity. And when we hear a nightingale, we hear the pause and the rich, piercing rhythm of recollection, the perfect past. The lark may sound sad, but with the lovely lapsing sadness that is almost a swoon of hope. The nightingale’s triumph is a pæan, but a death-pæan.”

1918
“A Retrospect” and “A Few Don’ts”
By Ezra Pound
“There has been so much scribbling about a new fashion in poetry, that I may perhaps be pardoned this brief recapitulation and retrospect.”

1915
Preface to Some Imagist Poets
By Amy Lowell
“In March, 1914, a volume appeared entitled ‘Des Imagistes.’ It was a collection of the work of various young poets, presented together as a school. This school has been widely discussed by those interested in new movements in the arts, and has already become a household word. Differences of taste and judgment, however, have arisen among the contributors to that book; growing tendencies are forcing them along different paths. Those of us whose work appears in this volume have therefore decided to publish our collection under a new title, and we have been joined by two or three poets who did not contribute to the first volume, our wider scope making this possible.”

1914
Aphorisms on Futurism
By Mina Loy
“DIE in the Past
Live in the Future.

THE velocity of velocities arrives in starting.”

1914
Vortex
By Ezra Pound
          The vortex is the point of maximum energy.
         It represents, in mechanics, the greatest efficiency.
         We use the words “greatest efficiency” in the precise sense—as they would be used in a text book of MECHANICS.
         You may think of man as that toward which perception moves. You may think of him as the TOY of circumstance, as the plastic substance RECEIVING impressions.
         OR you may think of him as DIRECTING a certain fluid force against circumstance, as CONCEIVING instead of merely observing and reflecting.

1911
Romanticism and Classicism
By T. E. Hulme
I want to maintain that after a hundred years of romanticism, we are in for a classical revival, and that the particular weapon of this new classical spirit, when it works in verse, will be fancy. And in this I imply the superiority of fancy—not superior generally or absolutely, for that would be obvious nonsense, but superior in the sense that we use the word good in empirical ethics—good for something, superior for something. I shall have to prove then two things, first that a classical revival is coming, and, secondly, for its particular purposes, fancy will be superior to imagination.

1880
The Study of Poetry
By Matthew Arnold
“‘The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry.’”

1864
Selections from Hopkins’s Letters
By Gerard Manley Hopkins
Your letter has been sent to me from Hampstead. It has just come, and I do a rare thing with me, begin at once on an answer. I have just finished The Philippics of Cicero and an hour remains before bedtime; no one except Wharton would begin a new book at that time of night, so I was reading Henry IV, when your letter was brought in—a great enjoyment.

1855
from Preface to Leaves of Grass, first edition
By Walt Whitman
“America does not repel the past or what it has produced under its forms or amid other politics or the idea of castes or the old religions . . . accepts the lesson with calmness . . . is not so impatient as has been supposed that the slough still sticks to opinions and manners and literature while the life which served its requirements has passed into the new life of the new forms perceives that the corpse is slowly borne from the eating and sleeping rooms of the house . . . perceives that it waits a little while in the door . . . that it was fittest for its days . . . that its action has descended to the stalwart and wellshaped heir who approaches . . . and that he shall be fittest for his days.”

1846
Criticism on English Literature. A Dialogue
By Margaret Fuller
Approach me not, man of cold, steadfast eye and compressed lips. At thy coming nature shrouds herself in dull mist; fain would she hide her sighs and smiles, her buds and fruits even in a veil of snow. For thy unkindly breath, as it pierces her mystery, destroys its creative power. The birds draw back into their nests, the sunset hues into their clouds, when you are .seen in the distance with your tablets all ready to write them into prose.

1846
The Philosophy of Composition
By Edgar Allan Poe
“Charles Dickens, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of ‘Barnaby Rudge,’ says—‘By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his ‘Caleb Williams’ backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.’”

1844
from “The Poet”
By Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Those who are esteemed umpires of taste, are often persons who have acquired some knowledge of admired pictures or sculptures, and have an inclination for whatever is elegant; but if you inquire whether they are beautiful souls, and whether their own acts are like fair pictures, you learn that they are selfish and sensual. Their cultivation is local, as if you should rub a log of dry wood in one spot to produce fire, all the rest remaining cold.”

1821
A Defence of Poetry
By Percy Bysshe Shelley
“According to one mode of regarding those two classes of mental action, which are called reason and imagination, the former may be considered as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another, however produced, and the latter, as mind acting upon those thoughts so as to color them with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity.”

1820
from “The Four Ages of Poetry”
By Thomas Love Peacock
“The first, or iron age of poetry, is that in which rude bards celebrate in rough numbers the exploits of ruder chiefs, in days when every man is a warrior, and when the great practical maxim of every form of society, ‘to keep what we have and to catch what we can,’ is not yet disguised under names of justice and forms of law, but is the naked motto of the naked sword, which is the only judge and jury in every question of meum and tuum [‘mine’ and ‘yours’—ed.].”

1818
from “On Poetry in General”
By William Hazlitt
“Poetry, then, is an imitation of nature, but the imagination and the passions are a part of man’s nature. We shape things according to our wishes and fancies, without poetry; but poetry is the most emphatical language that can be found for those creations of the mind “which ecstasy is very cunning in.” Neither a mere description of natural objects, nor a mere delineation of natural feelings, however distinct or forcible, constitutes the ultimate end and aim of poetry, without the heightenings of the imagination.”

1817
from Biographia Literaria, Chapter XIV
By Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“Occasion of the Lyrical Ballads, and the objects originally proposed—Preface to the second edition—The ensuing controversy, its causes and acrimony—Philosophic definitions of a poem and poetry with scholia. During the first year that Mr. Wordsworth and I were neighbors, our conversations turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colors of imagination.”

1817
Selections from Keats’s Letters
By John Keats
“Ever since I wrote to my Brothers from Southampton I have been in a taking, and at this moment I am about to become settled. for I have unpacked my books, put them into a snug corner—pinned up Haydon—Mary Queen of Scotts, and Milton with his daughters in a row.”

1800
Observations Prefixed to Lyrical Ballads
By William Wordsworth
“The first volume of these Poems has already been submitted to general perusal. It was published, as an experiment, which, I hoped, might be of some use to ascertain, how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a Poet may rationally endeavor to impart.”

1779
from Lives of the Poets
By Samuel Johnson
“He was at this time [1624, aged fifteen] eminently skilled in the Latin tongue; and he himself by annexing the dates to his first compositions, a boast of which the learned Politian [Angelo Poliziano (1454–94), poet and scholar—ed.] had given him an example, seems to commend the earliness of his own proficiency to the notice of posterity; but the products of his vernal fertility have been surpassed by many, and particularly by his contemporary Cowley.”

1715
Preface to The Iliad of Homer
By Alexander Pope
“Homer is universally allowed to have had the greatest invention of any writer whatever. The praise of judgment Virgil has justly contested with him, and others may have their pretensions as to particular excellences; but his invention remains yet unrivalled. Nor is it a wonder if he has ever been acknowledged the greatest of poets, who most excelled in that which is the very foundation of poetry.”

1711
An Essay on Criticism
By Alexander Pope
“'Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill;
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' offence
To tire our patience, than mislead our sense.
Some few in that, but numbers err in this,
Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss;
A fool might once himself alone expose,
Now one in verse makes many more in prose.”

1674
Introduction to Paradise Lost
By John Milton
“The Measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and Virgil in Latin; Rhime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac't indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse then else they would have exprest them.”

1668
An Essay of Dramatic Poesy
By John Dryden
It was that memorable day, in the first Summer of the late War, when our Navy engaged the Dutch: a day wherein the two most mighty and best appointed Fleets which any age had ever seen, disputed the command of the greater half of the Globe, the commerce of Nations, and the riches of the Universe.”

1644
from Of Education
By John Milton
“For the studies, first they should begin with the chief and necessary rules of some good grammar, either that now used, or any better: and while this is doing, their speech is to be fashioned to a distinct and clear pronunciation, as near as may be to the Italian, especially in the vowels. For we Englishmen being far northerly, do not open our mouths in the cold air, wide enough to grace a southern tongue; but are observed by all other nations to speak exceeding close and inward: So that to smatter Latin with an English mouth, is as ill a hearing as Law-French.”

1583
The Defence of Poesy
By Philip Sidney
“When the right virtuous Edward Wotton and I were at the Emperor’s [Maximilian II] court together, we gave ourselves to learn horsemanship of John Pietro Pugliano, one that with great commendation had the place of an esquire in his stable; and he, according to the fertileness of the Italian wit, did not only afford us the demonstration of his practice, but sought to enrich our minds with the contemplations therein which he thought most precious.”

100
from “On the Sublime”
By Longinus
“First of all, we must raise the question whether there is such a thing as an art of the sublime or lofty. Some hold that those are entirely in error who would bring such matters under the precepts of art. A lofty tone, says one, is innate, and does not come by teaching; nature is the only art that can compass it. Works of nature are, they think, made worse and altogether feebler when wizened by the rules of art.”

15 BC
Ars Poetica
By Horace
“If a painter should wish to unite a horse’s neck to a human head, and spread a variety of plumage over limbs [of different animals] taken from every part [of nature], so that what is a beautiful woman in the upper part terminates unsightly in an ugly fish below; could you, my friends, refrain from laughter, were you admitted to such a sight. Believe, ye Pisos, the book will be perfectly like such a picture, the ideas of which, like a sick man’s dreams, are all vain and fictitious: so that neither head nor foot can correspond to any one form.”

335 BC
from Poetics
By Aristotle
“I propose to treat of Poetry in itself and of its various kinds, noting the essential quality of each, to inquire into the structure of the plot as requisite to a good poem; into the number and nature of the parts of which a poem is composed; and similarly into whatever else falls within the same inquiry. Following, then, the order of nature, let us begin with the principles which come first.”

380 BC
from the Republic
By Plato
“Or, if the poet everywhere appears and never conceals himself, then again the imitation is dropped, and his poetry becomes simple narration. However, in order that I may make my meaning quite clear, and that you may no more say, ‘I don’t understand,’ I will show how the change might be effected. If Homer had said, ‘The priest came, having his daughter’s ransom in his hands, supplicating the Achaeans, and above all the kings’; and then if, instead of speaking in the person of Chryses, he had continued in his own person, the words would have been, not imitation, but simple narration.”

380 BC
from the Republic
By Plato
“Or, if the poet everywhere appears and never conceals himself, then again the imitation is dropped, and his poetry becomes simple narration. However, in order that I may make my meaning quite clear, and that you may no more say, ‘I don’t understand,’ I will show how the change might be effected. If Homer had said, ‘The priest came, having his daughter’s ransom in his hands, supplicating the Achaeans, and above all the kings’; and then if, instead of speaking in the person of Chryses, he had continued in his own person, the words would have been, not imitation, but simple narration.”

335 BC
from Poetics
By Aristotle
“I propose to treat of Poetry in itself and of its various kinds, noting the essential quality of each, to inquire into the structure of the plot as requisite to a good poem; into the number and nature of the parts of which a poem is composed; and similarly into whatever else falls within the same inquiry. Following, then, the order of nature, let us begin with the principles which come first.”

15 BC
Ars Poetica
By Horace
“If a painter should wish to unite a horse’s neck to a human head, and spread a variety of plumage over limbs [of different animals] taken from every part [of nature], so that what is a beautiful woman in the upper part terminates unsightly in an ugly fish below; could you, my friends, refrain from laughter, were you admitted to such a sight. Believe, ye Pisos, the book will be perfectly like such a picture, the ideas of which, like a sick man’s dreams, are all vain and fictitious: so that neither head nor foot can correspond to any one form.”

100
from “On the Sublime”
By Longinus
“First of all, we must raise the question whether there is such a thing as an art of the sublime or lofty. Some hold that those are entirely in error who would bring such matters under the precepts of art. A lofty tone, says one, is innate, and does not come by teaching; nature is the only art that can compass it. Works of nature are, they think, made worse and altogether feebler when wizened by the rules of art.”

1583
The Defence of Poesy
By Philip Sidney
“When the right virtuous Edward Wotton and I were at the Emperor’s [Maximilian II] court together, we gave ourselves to learn horsemanship of John Pietro Pugliano, one that with great commendation had the place of an esquire in his stable; and he, according to the fertileness of the Italian wit, did not only afford us the demonstration of his practice, but sought to enrich our minds with the contemplations therein which he thought most precious.”

1644
from Of Education
By John Milton
“For the studies, first they should begin with the chief and necessary rules of some good grammar, either that now used, or any better: and while this is doing, their speech is to be fashioned to a distinct and clear pronunciation, as near as may be to the Italian, especially in the vowels. For we Englishmen being far northerly, do not open our mouths in the cold air, wide enough to grace a southern tongue; but are observed by all other nations to speak exceeding close and inward: So that to smatter Latin with an English mouth, is as ill a hearing as Law-French.”

1668
An Essay of Dramatic Poesy
By John Dryden
It was that memorable day, in the first Summer of the late War, when our Navy engaged the Dutch: a day wherein the two most mighty and best appointed Fleets which any age had ever seen, disputed the command of the greater half of the Globe, the commerce of Nations, and the riches of the Universe.”

1674
Introduction to Paradise Lost
By John Milton
“The Measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and Virgil in Latin; Rhime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac't indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse then else they would have exprest them.”

1711
An Essay on Criticism
By Alexander Pope
“'Tis hard to say, if greater want of skill
Appear in writing or in judging ill;
But, of the two, less dang'rous is th' offence
To tire our patience, than mislead our sense.
Some few in that, but numbers err in this,
Ten censure wrong for one who writes amiss;
A fool might once himself alone expose,
Now one in verse makes many more in prose.”

1715
Preface to The Iliad of Homer
By Alexander Pope
“Homer is universally allowed to have had the greatest invention of any writer whatever. The praise of judgment Virgil has justly contested with him, and others may have their pretensions as to particular excellences; but his invention remains yet unrivalled. Nor is it a wonder if he has ever been acknowledged the greatest of poets, who most excelled in that which is the very foundation of poetry.”

1779
from Lives of the Poets
By Samuel Johnson
“He was at this time [1624, aged fifteen] eminently skilled in the Latin tongue; and he himself by annexing the dates to his first compositions, a boast of which the learned Politian [Angelo Poliziano (1454–94), poet and scholar—ed.] had given him an example, seems to commend the earliness of his own proficiency to the notice of posterity; but the products of his vernal fertility have been surpassed by many, and particularly by his contemporary Cowley.”

1800
Observations Prefixed to Lyrical Ballads
By William Wordsworth
“The first volume of these Poems has already been submitted to general perusal. It was published, as an experiment, which, I hoped, might be of some use to ascertain, how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a Poet may rationally endeavor to impart.”

1817
from Biographia Literaria, Chapter XIV
By Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“Occasion of the Lyrical Ballads, and the objects originally proposed—Preface to the second edition—The ensuing controversy, its causes and acrimony—Philosophic definitions of a poem and poetry with scholia. During the first year that Mr. Wordsworth and I were neighbors, our conversations turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colors of imagination.”

1817
Selections from Keats’s Letters
By John Keats
“Ever since I wrote to my Brothers from Southampton I have been in a taking, and at this moment I am about to become settled. for I have unpacked my books, put them into a snug corner—pinned up Haydon—Mary Queen of Scotts, and Milton with his daughters in a row.”

1818
from “On Poetry in General”
By William Hazlitt
“Poetry, then, is an imitation of nature, but the imagination and the passions are a part of man’s nature. We shape things according to our wishes and fancies, without poetry; but poetry is the most emphatical language that can be found for those creations of the mind “which ecstasy is very cunning in.” Neither a mere description of natural objects, nor a mere delineation of natural feelings, however distinct or forcible, constitutes the ultimate end and aim of poetry, without the heightenings of the imagination.”

1820
from “The Four Ages of Poetry”
By Thomas Love Peacock
“The first, or iron age of poetry, is that in which rude bards celebrate in rough numbers the exploits of ruder chiefs, in days when every man is a warrior, and when the great practical maxim of every form of society, ‘to keep what we have and to catch what we can,’ is not yet disguised under names of justice and forms of law, but is the naked motto of the naked sword, which is the only judge and jury in every question of meum and tuum [‘mine’ and ‘yours’—ed.].”

1821
A Defence of Poetry
By Percy Bysshe Shelley
“According to one mode of regarding those two classes of mental action, which are called reason and imagination, the former may be considered as mind contemplating the relations borne by one thought to another, however produced, and the latter, as mind acting upon those thoughts so as to color them with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity.”

1844
from “The Poet”
By Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Those who are esteemed umpires of taste, are often persons who have acquired some knowledge of admired pictures or sculptures, and have an inclination for whatever is elegant; but if you inquire whether they are beautiful souls, and whether their own acts are like fair pictures, you learn that they are selfish and sensual. Their cultivation is local, as if you should rub a log of dry wood in one spot to produce fire, all the rest remaining cold.”

1846
Criticism on English Literature. A Dialogue
By Margaret Fuller
Approach me not, man of cold, steadfast eye and compressed lips. At thy coming nature shrouds herself in dull mist; fain would she hide her sighs and smiles, her buds and fruits even in a veil of snow. For thy unkindly breath, as it pierces her mystery, destroys its creative power. The birds draw back into their nests, the sunset hues into their clouds, when you are .seen in the distance with your tablets all ready to write them into prose.

1846
The Philosophy of Composition
By Edgar Allan Poe
“Charles Dickens, in a note now lying before me, alluding to an examination I once made of the mechanism of ‘Barnaby Rudge,’ says—‘By the way, are you aware that Godwin wrote his ‘Caleb Williams’ backwards? He first involved his hero in a web of difficulties, forming the second volume, and then, for the first, cast about him for some mode of accounting for what had been done.’”

1855
from Preface to Leaves of Grass, first edition
By Walt Whitman
“America does not repel the past or what it has produced under its forms or amid other politics or the idea of castes or the old religions . . . accepts the lesson with calmness . . . is not so impatient as has been supposed that the slough still sticks to opinions and manners and literature while the life which served its requirements has passed into the new life of the new forms perceives that the corpse is slowly borne from the eating and sleeping rooms of the house . . . perceives that it waits a little while in the door . . . that it was fittest for its days . . . that its action has descended to the stalwart and wellshaped heir who approaches . . . and that he shall be fittest for his days.”

1864
Selections from Hopkins’s Letters
By Gerard Manley Hopkins
Your letter has been sent to me from Hampstead. It has just come, and I do a rare thing with me, begin at once on an answer. I have just finished The Philippics of Cicero and an hour remains before bedtime; no one except Wharton would begin a new book at that time of night, so I was reading Henry IV, when your letter was brought in—a great enjoyment.

1880
The Study of Poetry
By Matthew Arnold
“‘The future of poetry is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay. There is not a creed which is not shaken, not an accredited dogma which is not shown to be questionable, not a received tradition which does not threaten to dissolve. Our religion has materialised itself in the fact, in the supposed fact; it has attached its emotion to the fact, and now the fact is failing it. But for poetry the idea is everything; the rest is a world of illusion, of divine illusion. Poetry attaches its emotion to the idea; the idea is the fact. The strongest part of our religion to-day is its unconscious poetry.’”

1911
Romanticism and Classicism
By T. E. Hulme
I want to maintain that after a hundred years of romanticism, we are in for a classical revival, and that the particular weapon of this new classical spirit, when it works in verse, will be fancy. And in this I imply the superiority of fancy—not superior generally or absolutely, for that would be obvious nonsense, but superior in the sense that we use the word good in empirical ethics—good for something, superior for something. I shall have to prove then two things, first that a classical revival is coming, and, secondly, for its particular purposes, fancy will be superior to imagination.

1914
Aphorisms on Futurism
By Mina Loy
“DIE in the Past
Live in the Future.

THE velocity of velocities arrives in starting.”

1914
Vortex
By Ezra Pound
          The vortex is the point of maximum energy.
         It represents, in mechanics, the greatest efficiency.
         We use the words “greatest efficiency” in the precise sense—as they would be used in a text book of MECHANICS.
         You may think of man as that toward which perception moves. You may think of him as the TOY of circumstance, as the plastic substance RECEIVING impressions.
         OR you may think of him as DIRECTING a certain fluid force against circumstance, as CONCEIVING instead of merely observing and reflecting.

1915
Preface to Some Imagist Poets
By Amy Lowell
“In March, 1914, a volume appeared entitled ‘Des Imagistes.’ It was a collection of the work of various young poets, presented together as a school. This school has been widely discussed by those interested in new movements in the arts, and has already become a household word. Differences of taste and judgment, however, have arisen among the contributors to that book; growing tendencies are forcing them along different paths. Those of us whose work appears in this volume have therefore decided to publish our collection under a new title, and we have been joined by two or three poets who did not contribute to the first volume, our wider scope making this possible.”

1918
“A Retrospect” and “A Few Don’ts”
By Ezra Pound
“There has been so much scribbling about a new fashion in poetry, that I may perhaps be pardoned this brief recapitulation and retrospect.”

1919
The Poetry of the Present
By D. H. Lawrence
“It seems when we hear a skylark singing as if sound were running forward into the future, running so fast and utterly without consideration, straight on into futurity. And when we hear a nightingale, we hear the pause and the rich, piercing rhythm of recollection, the perfect past. The lark may sound sad, but with the lovely lapsing sadness that is almost a swoon of hope. The nightingale’s triumph is a pæan, but a death-pæan.”

1920
Hamlet
By T. S. Eliot
“Few critics have even admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary. And Hamlet the character has had an especial temptation for that most dangerous type of critic: the critic with a mind which is naturally of the creative order, but which through some weakness in creative power exercises itself in criticism instead. These minds often find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their own artistic realization. Such a mind had Goethe, who made of Hamlet a Werther; and such had Coleridge, who made of Hamlet a Coleridge; and probably neither of these men in writing about Hamlet remembered that his first business was to study a work of art.”

1920
Tradition and the Individual Talent
By T. S. Eliot
“In English writing we seldom speak of tradition, though we occasionally apply its name in deploring its absence. We cannot refer to ‘the tradition’ or to ‘a tradition’; at most, we employ the adjective in saying that the poetry of So-and-so is ‘traditional’ or even ‘too traditional.’ Seldom, perhaps, does the word appear except in a phrase of censure. If otherwise, it is vaguely approbative, with the implication, as to the work approved, of some pleasing archaeological reconstruction. You can hardly make the word agreeable to English ears without this comfortable reference to the reassuring science of archaeology.”

1925
Composition as Explanation
By Gertrude Stein
There is singularly nothing that makes a difference a difference in beginning and in the middle and in ending except that each generation has something different at which they are all looking. By this I mean so simply that anybody knows it that composition is the difference which makes each and all of them then different from other generations and this is what makes everything different otherwise they are all alike and everybody knows it because everybody says it.

1926
The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain
By Langston Hughes
“One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, ‘I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet,’ meaning, I believe, ‘I want to write like a white poet’; meaning subconsciously, ‘I would like to be a white poet’; meaning behind that, ‘I would like to be white.’ And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet.”

1944
Introduction to The Wedge
By William Carlos Williams
“Critics of rather better than average standing have said in recent years that after socialism has been achieved it’s likely there will be no further use for poetry, that it will disappear. This comes from nothing else than a faulty definition of poetry—and the arts generally. I don’t hear anyone say that mathematics is likely to be outmoded, to disappear shortly. Then why poetry?”

1948
The Poem as a Field of Action
By William Carlos Williams
“I’m going to say one thing to you—for a week! And I hope to God when I’m through that I’ve succeeded in making you understand me. It concerns the poem as a field of action, at what pitch the battle is today and what may come of it.”

1950
Projective Verse
By Charles Olson
“I want to do two things: first, try to show what projective or OPEN verse is, what it involves, in its act of composition, how, in distinction from the non-projective, it is accomplished; and II, suggest a few ideas about what stance toward reality brings such verse into being, what the stance does, both to the poet and to his reader. (The stance involves, for example, a change beyond, and larger than, the technical, and may, the way things look, lead to a new poetics and to new concepts from which some sort of drama, say, or of epic, perhaps, may emerge.)”

1956
Jazz as Communication
By Langston Hughes
“You can start anywhere—Jazz as Communication—since it’s a circle, and you yourself are the dot in the middle. You, me. For example, I’ll start with the Blues. I’m not a Southerner. I never worked on a levee. I hardly ever saw a cotton field except from the highway. But women behave the same on Park Avenue as they do on a levee: when you’ve got hold of one part of them the other part escapes you. That’s the Blues!”

1963
Expressive Language
By Amiri Baraka
Speech is the effective form of a culture. Any shape or cluster of human history still apparent in the conscious and unconscious habit of groups of people is what I mean by culture. All culture is necessarily profound. The very fact of its longevity, of its being what it is, culture, the epic memory of practical tradition, means that it is profound. But the inherent profundity of culture does not necessarily mean that its uses (and they are as various as the human condition) will be profound. German culture is profound. Generically. Its uses, however, are specific, as are all uses . . . of ideas, inventions, products of nature. And specificity, as a right and passion of human life, breeds what it breeds as a result of context.

1963
The Mind’s Own Place
By George Oppen
“Sargent is reported to have said to Renoir that he painted ‘cads in the park.’ And Sargent was of course quite right. The passion of the Im­pressionists to see, and to see more clearly was a desire to see past the subject matter and the art attitudes of the academy. It is true that the artist is not dependent on his subject in the sense that he can be judged by its intrinsic interest, or that the discussion of his work can become a discussion of its subject. But the emotion which creates art is the emotion that seeks to know and to disclose.”

1965
200 Years of Afro-American Poetry
By Langston Hughes
“Poets and versifiers of African descent have been publishing poetry on American shores since the year 1746 when a slave woman named Lucy Terry penned a rhymed description of an Indian attack on the town of Deerfield, Massachusetts, a quarter of a century before the revolt of the New England colonies against Britain. And it was a Negro woman, Phillis Wheatley, who in one of her poems applied the oft quoted phrase ‘First in Peace’ to General George Washington before he became the first President of the United States, From his rebel field encampment the General sent the young poetess a note which read in part, ‘If you should ever come to Cambridge or near headquarters, I shall be happy to see a person so favored by the Muses, and to whom Nature has been so liberal and beneficent in her dispensations.’”

1965
California Lecture: from “Poetry and Politics”
By Jack Spicer
“You’ve all read your morning paper, and you know what’s happening as far as our escalator or whatever it’s called in Vietnam. This is not what I’m trying to talk about. What’s I’m trying to talk about is for you people who are poets and want some idea about how the strategy is for you to become poets who both write good poetry and also don’t sell out to the bosses. There are bosses in poetry as well as in the industrial empire and everything else, and what I want to talk to you about today is simply that—how to manage yourself in your own individual way, I guess, since no poet who’s worthy of the term doesn’t. But also, where to avoid mistakes that one has, say, the mistake of saying 'Gee, I’m a great poet and somebody wants to print me.' And you have say, five, six poems. They’re good, but they aren’t that good, and so forth. What do you do?”

1965
Some Notes on Organic Form
By Denise Levertov
“For me, back of the idea of organic form is the concept that there is a form in all things (and in our experience) which the poet can discover and reveal. There are no doubt temperamental differences between poets who use prescribed forms and those who look for new ones—people who need a tight sched­ule to get anything done, and people who have to have a free hand—but the difference in their conception of ‘content’ or ‘reality’ is functionally more important.”

1965
Vancouver Lectures: from "Dictation and 'A Textbook of Poetry'"
By Jack Spicer
“Well, I really ought to explain the structure of the three lecture/readings, more than is on the flyer that some of you saw. Essentially what’s going to happen is that each evening I’m going to read some of my work. In each reading there’s going to be a discussion of the problems that have to do with poets as far as I see what the problems are with poets. And they’re pretty much in order of importance. I think the problem of poetic dictation is perhaps the first problem a poet has. The second problem—one you can’t really “get” too well without understanding what poetic dictation is or isn’t—is a serial poem. And the third lecture on Thursday night will be a sort of an autopsy or a looking at the growth of a poem I’m writing now—the problems of a person in the middle of a poem, what comes up to make things different. In other words, I’m rather assuming that all of you are interested directly as poets in the writing of poetry, and I’m not going to talk about aesthetic theory except where I think it has something to do with the problems of anyone writing poetry.”

1967
The Fire
By Robin Blaser
“I am writing here about my poetry in relation to poetry. The writing had an occasion: for a few in San Francisco, where I read it last March 8th [1967]. I want to talk about the personalism and the co-called obscurity of my poems in relation to the sight, sound, and intellect that compose them. ‘The test of poetry,’ in Zukofsky’s words, ‘is the range of pleasure it affords as sight, sound, and intellection.’”

1979
The Flower of Capital
By Michael Palmer
“The flower of capital is small and white large and grey-green in a storm its petals sing. (This refers to capital with the capital L.) Yesterday I borrowed Picabia’s Lagonda for a drive through the Bois. A heavy mist enveloped the park so that we could barely discern the outline of a few silent figures making their way among the sycamores and elms. Emerging at Porte de Neuilly the air grew suddenly clear and ahead to my right I noticed M pushing a perambulator before her with a distracted mien. Her hair fell disheveled about her face, her clothes were threadbare, and every few steps she would pause briefly and look about as if uncertain where she was.”

1982
The Triggering Town
By Richard Hugo
“You hear me make extreme statements like ‘don’t communicate’ and ‘there is no reader.’ While these state­ments are meant as said, I presume when I make them that you can communicate and can write clear English sentences. I caution against communication because once language exists only to convey information, it is dying.”

1985
The Rejection of Closure
By Lyn Hejinian
“‘The Rejection of Closure’ was originally written as a talk and given at 544 Natoma Street, San Francisco, on April 17, 1983. The “Who Is Speak­ing?” panel discussion had taken place several weeks earlier, and with the ‘Poetry & Philosophy’ issue of Poetics Journal (volume 3) about to come out, Barrett Watten and I had just decided to devote Poetics Journal 4 to the theme of ‘Women & Language.’ Within the writing community, discus­sions of gender were frequent, and they were addressed both to percep­tible practical problems (instances of injustice) immediately affecting people’s work and lives and to longer-term questions of power and, in particular, the ethics of meaning.”

1993
Someone is Writing a Poem
By Adrienne Rich
In a political culture of managed spectacles and passive spectators, poetry appears as a rift, a peculiar lapse, in the prevailing mode. The reading of a poem, a poetry reading, is not a spectacle, nor can it be passively received.

1998
The Poetics of Disobedience
By Alice Notley
For a long time I've seen my job as bound up with the necessity of noncompliance with pressures, dictates, atmospheres of, variously, poetic factions, society at large, my own past practices as well. For a long time--well in fact since the beginning, since I learned how to be a poet inside the more rebellious wing of poetry; though learning itself meant a kind of disobedience, so like most words the Dis word, the Dis form, cannot be worshipped either--and that would be an obedience anyway.

2000
Invisible Architecture
By Barbara Guest
                 There is an invisible architecture often supporting
   the surface of the poem, interrupting the progress of the poem. It reaches
into the poem
in search for an identity with the poem,

2005
Female Tradition as Feminist Innovation
By Annie Finch
Even at this late-postmodernist moment, when self-defined innovative poetry needs to build on a long tradition of previous self-defined innovative poetry, such poetry still defines itself in opposition to tradition. With an inheritance of genuine innovation, of poets who did everything they could to be different from any of their forebears, how does a poet today define writing in traditional form as innovative?

2005
Sight-Specific, Sound-Specific . . .
By Nathaniel Mackey
Performance is a bothersome word for writerly poets. Performance art, poetry slams, and the like have made the term synonymous with theatricality, a recourse to dramatic, declamatory, and other tactics aimed at propping up words or at helping them out—words regarded, either way, as needing help, support, embellishment, deficient or decrepit or even dead left on their own.

2006
Cracks in the Oracle Bone: Teaching Certain Contemporary Poems
By Brenda Hillman
When I began to work on this lecture some time ago, I had just received an email saying that former Attorney General John Ashcroft, having retired from the Cabinet, was seriously hoping to be selected as Poet Laureate of the United States. Ashcroft’s best-known poem, “Let the Eagle Soar,” was used at President Bush’s swearing-in ceremony.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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