Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

by John Van Doren
Dear Editor,

Brian Phillips tries hard but gets nowhere in taking up once again the old problem of poetic taste. There is nowhere to go on that subject, which is why no one has ever gotten there. The right measure of good poetry is not taste but truth, something that was given up a couple of hundred years ago by Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the Romantics generally, because they despaired of competing with science, especially Newton, in giving what could be called a true account of the world, and retreated into beauty, feeling, and, yes, taste, as standards by which their art should be measured.

The best poems, by and large, and the best lines in the best poems, all say something true. That is why we honor and remember them. Oh, it matters how this truth is stated, but if the statement fails as truth it survives only as    ...    well, taste, which is a lesser thing. Some poetry is very beautiful, yet false, as in my judgment are the last lines of "Sunday Morning." Some deliberately rough, even homespun poetry is wonderfully true, like the two definitions of home in "The Death of the Hired Man." We must keep the difference in mind.

So why bother with poetry, if I am right? Because its way of stating the truth makes us see it, and believe it. There might have been lots of ways of imagining the first sight of the Pacific Ocean, but "Silent, upon a Peak in Darien" seems defining, as of course it is wonderfully satisfying. Yes, we can try — poetry must try — to say the best and truest things over and over again, and now and again someone succeeds — to our delight. But it is the old, the constant truth, which we are reminded of, and which doesn't change. Is it said beautifully? Sometimes.

New York, New York

Originally Published: November 15, 2007

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This prose originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Poetry magazine

November 2007

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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