Wednesday 5 October 2011

Writing poetry: quotations

I’ve got an old blue notebook that I must have bought when I lived in Greece because it says TETRADION on the front in Greek letters.  It contains an old list of things to remember when writing, all of which are still relevant, however hackneyed some may seem.  Some are quotations.  Here are ten favourites, very and less well known. 

Make it new   
    EZRA POUND, Essays 1934

Magma 18
“Make it new” - Pound’s old command - is still as talismanic as ever. Yet the trouble with superficial ways of making new is that they leave out the old.           HELEN VENDLER, The New Republic, February 2005 

Because I’m in love with the line break. 
  JOHN ASHBERY, asked why he writes poetry

I feel that once you’ve found the form – and that could be in free verse, not necessarily in metrical or fixed forms – but once a poem has found its form it’s almost found itself and then it’s more like filling in… The rhythm is part of the form.. until I can hear a rhythm, I can’t even begin to approach a poem; the poetry’s not there until it’s audible in some way

Most poems that fail are only half there.  The writer has not imagined well enough and is content with what came too easily. 

[This excellent book was recommended to me when I started writing seriously (i.e. not just a draft every few years).  I enjoyed reading it, and did all the exercises; and it introduced me to poets I didn’t know, from Tess Gallagher to Tomaž Šalamun.  Now I recommend it to anyone looking for a poetry primer.]

We no longer think or need to think in terms of monolinear logic, the sentence structure, subject, predicate, object, etc. We are as capable or almost as capable as the biologist of thinking thoughts that join like spokes in a wheel-hub and that fuse in hyper-geometric amalgams.
    EZRA POUND, 'Epstein, Belgion and Meaning', The Criterion April,1930

What is the source of our first suffering?  It lies in the fact that we hesitated to speak.  It began in the moment when we accumulated silent things within us. 
    GASTON BACHELARD, quoted in a lecture by Seamus Heaney. 

The progress of any writer is marked by those moments when he manages to outwit his own inner police system
    TED HUGHES, in What rhymes with ‘secret’?, 1982.  [I’ve written beside this, “+ Emily D, p.14”.  I have no idea what or where I meant.  There’s nothing relevant on p.14 of my Emily Dickinson...] 

If after I read a poem, the world looks like that poem for 24 hours or so, I’m sure it’s a good one. 
    ELIZABETH BISHOP, letter to Robert Lowell, 1962.

The poem is more than the poet's intention. The poet does not write what he knows but what he does not know.
    W S GRAHAM, Poetry Scotland 1946

A rich source of quotes is the Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations, edited by Dennis O’Driscoll.  They are all more or less contemporary so most of the above aren’t included, though Pound & Co live on, in a supplementary index of poets named in the quotes.  They cover many eventualities, from theorising to poetry politics, from complaint to comedy.  I found the Vendler quote there; could add many more from O’Driscoll’s treasure trove.  I love this one:

Interviewer:does it make any difference to you being a woman poet?
Liz Lochhead: I don’t know.  I’ve never tried being a man poet! 
    BBC RADIO FOUR, May 1992


  1. Tim - thank you, what an amazing collection. From Obscurity to Old Age to Omissions to Oulipo...

  2. I like the WS Graham quote about the poem being more than the poet's intention and not writing what you know but what you don't.

    Kathleen Jamie, in the collection of essays Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry, writes about the process of change in a poem: 'To write a poem is to work with change, to deal with a shape-shifter. When we begin a new poem, we begin to engage with the ideas or material, to build up energy. Then suddenly we're in there, writing it, bringing it through change, and a poem is what we have left of a process of change which has exhausted itself.'

    In similar vein, there's a piece on the Poetry Foundation website about Jorie Graham, describing her as 'a poet of process rather than completion'. A fine thing to aim for, I think.