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

    “It’s necessary to maintain a state of disobedience against ... everything. One must remain somehow, though how, open to any subject or form in principle, open to the possibility of liking, open to the possibility of using.” 

    By Alice Notley
More Essays
  • 2006
    By Brenda Hillman

    I’m thrilled to be presenting a lecture honoring Judith Stronach to many colleagues and friends, and I’m grateful to Ray for publishing this series of lectures by poets—I feel fortunate to be among such illustrious company.
    When I began to work...

  • 2005
    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...

  • 2005
    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...

  • 2000
    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,
    its object is to possess the poem for a brief...

  • 1998
    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...

  • 1998
    By Ann Lauterbach

    In May 1998, the critic Michael Brenson organized a symposium at the Rockefeller Foundation in New York at which a number of people in the arts were asked to consider certain words. My word was “experimental.” This is a somewhat...

  • 1993
    By Adrienne Rich

    The society whose modernization has reached the stage of integrated spectacle is characterized by the combined effect of five principal factors: incessant technological renewal, integration of state and economy, generalized secrecy, unanswerable lies, and eternal present.
    The spectator is simply supposed...

  • 1985
    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.(1) The “Who Is Speak­ing?” panel discussion had taken place several weeks earlier, and with the “Poetry & Philosophy”...

  • 1982
    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...

  • 1979
    By Michael Palmer

          (sermon faux – vraie historie)
          . . . and the old dogmatism will no longer be able to end it.
    The flower of capital is small and white large and grey-green in a storm its petals sing....

  • 1967
    By Robin Blaser

    especially for Ebbe Borregaard (1)
    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].(2) I want to talk about the...

  • 1965
    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...

  • 1965
    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...

  • 1965
    By Jack Spicer

    THOMAS PARKINSON:(1) I think we can start the lecture now. This seems to be old home week. We have Jack Spicer with us, as we have off and on now for about twenty years, and it’s always a pleasure. Jack...

  • 1965
    By Jack Spicer

    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...

  • 1963
    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.(1) The passion of the Im­pressionists to see, and to see more clearly was a desire to see past...

  • 1963
    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...

  • 1956
    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...

  • 1950
    By Charles Olson

    PROJECTIVE                                                                           VERSE[1]
                                           (projectile          (percussive          (prospective

  • 1948
    By William Carlos Williams

    Talk given at the University of Washington, 1948
    Let’s begin by quoting Mr. Auden—(from The Orators): “Need I remind you that you’re no longer living in ancient Egypt?”
    I’m going to say one thing to you—for a week! And I hope to...

  • 1944
    By William Carlos Williams

    The War is the first and only thing in the world today.
    The arts generally are not, nor is this writing a diversion from that for relief, a turning away. It is the war or part of it, merely a different...

  • 1926
    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...

  • 1925
    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...

  • 1920
    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...

  • 1920
    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...

  • 1919
    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...

  • 1918
    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.
    In the spring or early summer of 1912, “H. D.,” Richard Aldington and myself decided that we...

  • 1915
    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,...

  • 1914
    By Mina Loy

    DIE in the Past
    Live in the Future.
    THE velocity of velocities arrives in starting.
    IN pressing the material to derive its essence, matter becomes deformed.
    AND form hurtling against itself is thrown beyond the synopsis of vision.
    THE straight line and the circle are...

  • 1914
    By Wyndham Lewis

    Long live the great art vortex sprung up in the centre of this town!
    We stand for the Reality of the Present—not for the sentimental Future, or the sacripant Past.
    We want to leave Nature and Men alone.
    We do not want to...

  • 1914
    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...

  • 1911
    By T. E. Hulme

                                                    [Speculations, 113—40]
    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...

  • 1880
    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,...

  • 1864
    By Gerard Manley Hopkins

    To Alexander William Mowbray Baillie
    Sept. 10. 1864.
    Dear Baillie,—
    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...

  • 1855
    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...

  • 1846
    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...

  • 1846
    By Margaret Fuller

    Poet. 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...

  • 1844
    By Ralph Waldo Emerson

    A moody child and wildly wise
    Pursued the game with joyful eyes,
    Which chose, like meteors, their way,
    And rived the dark with private ray:
    They overleapt the horizon’s edge,
    Searched with Apollo’s privilege;
    Through man, and woman, and sea, and star,
    Saw the dance of nature...

  • 1821
    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...

  • 1820
    By Thomas Love Peacock

    Qui inter hæc nutriuntur non magis sapere possunt, quam
 bene olere qui in culinâ habitant.
    [Those so trained (in schools of rhetoric) can no more acquire good taste than those who live in a kitchen can smell good—ed.]
    Poetry, like the...

  • 1818
    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...

  • 1817
    By John Keats

    [On Shakespeare and “Eternal Poetry”: Letter to J. H. Reynolds, 17, 18 April 1817]
    Carisbrooke April 17th
    My dear Reynolds,
    Ever since I wrote to my Brothers from Southampton I have been in a taking, and at this moment I am about...

  • 1817
    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...

  • 1800
    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...

  • 1779
    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...

  • 1715
    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....

  • 1711
    By Alexander Pope

    PART 1
    '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...

  • 1674
    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...

  • 1668
    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...

  • 1644
    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...

  • 1583
    By Sir 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;...

  • 100
    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....

  • -15
    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...

  • -335
    By Aristotle

    PART I
    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...

  • -380
    By Plato

    [participants] SOCRATES–ADEIMANTUS
    [Socrates narrates:]
    Such then, I said, are our principles of theology—some tales are to be told, and others are not to be told to our disciples from their youth upwards, if we mean them to honor the gods and...

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