Monday, March 7, 2011

We tend to forget that "modern poetry" is a venerable institution.

It is often said that we read so-called “intellectual” poetry for its style rather than its content; anthologists and instructors assure us that Pope’s Essay on Man contains not a single fresh idea; that its saving feature is the vigor and grace with which it expresses old ones. Such a false division between form and content presupposes two boxes, one of which contains old hashed-over idea which everyone assimilated years ago, and from which the poet takes whatever he needs to “stuff” his poem; and the other, brand-new, unthought of ideas, to which the philosopher resorts when seeking inspiration. But there are no new ideas, any more than there are any old ones; there are merely old and new ways of looking at the world. Every new poem is a fresh discovery, and Pope stands acquitted on the charge of commonplace subject matter; “what oft was thought but n’er so well expressed” might as well be what n’er was thought for those who, but for the poet, might have understood the idea but not been able to apply it within their realm of experience.

-- John Ashbery, student paper on W.H. Auden, ca. 1949, quoted in Aidan Wasley’s The Age of Auden: Postwar Poetry and the American Scene (Princeton University Press, 2011), and blogged about by John Latta here. Latta, in his post,

... recalls Ashbery’s chewing over Auden’s line “poetry makes nothing happen.” Ashbery: “It doesn’t, but its value is precisely the fact that it doesn’t, because that’s the way it does make things happen. The pleasure that you get, if you love poetry, is a pleasure that’s going to cause you to act, it forces you back into life. Poetry is in fact—I was just reading a quotation from Hazlitt—not a branch of literature but life itself . . .” Akin, perhaps, to O’Hara’s cheeky “Personism” line: “one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person.” Double focus’d.


See the April issue of Poetry for John Ashbery's note on Rimbaud's Illuminations, accompanying his new translations of them, in which he says:

We tend to forget that "modern poetry" is a venerable institution.

Pictured: One of those boxes the poets takes his stuffing from.

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