Poet Timothy Donnelly is interviewed for Guernica, where he talks about history, romanticism, and form. After an introductory question, the interviewer jumps right into a “what-is-the-poet’s-role?” question, giving Donnelly a chance to articulate the relationship between poet and society, though he carefully dodges prescription:

I think it’s the same now as it always is, really. A poet should engage as fully as possible in the reality of his or her own moment, individual and collective, and then write the poems that come from that engagement—bearing in mind that our moment contains the traces of every moment that came before it. Maybe that sounds pompous and abstract but maybe also obvious. And not “should” as in “must” but “ought to.” Reading poems of the past you get a sense of the way an era’s psyche worked, what weighed on it and how it pushed back… Sure, it’s inevitable to some degree that a poet’s work will reflect something of his or her era no matter what. But to write with a sense of that as an opportunity rather than as an inevitability can really make all the difference in what we might call, in the general sense, a poem’s “relevance.”

And perhaps this dodging of prescription itself is related to the influence of romanticism on his writing and thinking. For Donnelly, the individual imagination (and the individual mind at work) provides the raw material and substance of a poem. And even though this imagination has its liberatory qualities, it can also be abused:

I think in some pretty fundamental ways my sensibility is romantic, I'll admit it—probably primarily in my understanding of the imagination as the supreme mental faculty. I don’t think that this is necessarily a good thing, either, not always—I think there’s a lot of imagining taking place that pretends to be cold hard reasoning, and the effects can be disastrous.

Originally Published: March 15th, 2011