I've started to read Strong Words: Modern Poets on Modern Poetry for my Practice of Poetry exam, and I'm enjoying it. It instructs wisely, confirms and questions much of what I believe/think about poetry and the practice of writing it, and I've decided to blog up extracts of the essays that particularly speak to me.
So, I'll begin with Ezra Pound.
from A Retrospect
In this essay, Pound lays down his fundemental 'rules' for writing poetry. His definitive metaphor for the practice of poetry is music:
Don't imagine that the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music, or that you can please the expert before you have spent at least as much effort on the art of verse as the average piano teacher spends on the art of music.
This sums up the undercurrent of this essay which is that, at the end of the day, writing a poem is hard work and should not be taken lightly; everyone knows that to play music like a virtuoso one must practice hard, learn the musical directions so that one can play the music at the right pace, at the right dynamic, and create suitable musical mood. To write well requires the same amount of dedication and rehearsal:
Let the neophyte know assonance and alliteration, rhyme immediate and delayed, simple and polyphonic, as a musician would expect to know harmony and counterpoint and all the minutiae of his craft.
His three main principles for writing the poetry of vers libre are outlined at the beginning of the essay:
1. Direct treatment of the "thing" whether subjective or objective.
2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.
Criticism is not a circumscription or a set of prohibitions. It provides fixed points of departure. It may startle a dull reader into alertness.
I do not agree with a tradition of criticism that defines the interpretation of a particular poem, that sets in stone the poem's meaning and nuances, that seems to be an 'effort to explain away ambiguity, to reduce the poem to statement like any other' (SW, 12). However, the purpose of criticism as outlined by Pound above justifies its necessity for me. He also warns: 'Pay no attention to the criticism of men who have never themselves written a notable work.' How many of the critics we read and whose words we take for granted have ever written a significant work which is not the criticism of someone else's work?
I was struck by his wonderfully succinct description of what 'an image' is:
An 'Image' is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time…It is the presentation of such a 'complex' instantaneously which gives the sens of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.
These are the statements of his that I though particularly resonant:
Do not retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose.
What the expert is tired of today the public will be tired of tomorrow.
Use either no ornament or good ornament.
When Shakespeare talk of the 'Dawn in russet mantle clad' he presents something which the painter does not present. There is in this line of his nothing that one can call description; he presents.
The scientist does not expect to be acclaimed as a great scientist until he had discovered something. He begins by learning what has been discovered already. He goes from this point onward.
A rhyme must have in it some slight element of surprise if it is to give pleasure.
That part of your poetry which strikes upon the imaginitive eye of the reader will lose nothing by translation into a foreign tongue; that which appeals to the ear can reach only those who take it in the orginal.
This is why I'm finding translating Persian poetry hard. A lot of the beauty is in the way the words sound, and also the word play which can hardly ever be translated with the same nuances.
If you are using a symmetrical form, don't put in what you want to say and then fill up the remaining vacuums with slush…Don't mess up the perception of one sense by trying to define it in terms of another. This is usually only the result of begin too lazy to find the exact word.
I believe that the proper and perfect symbol is the natural object, that if a man use "symbols" he must so use them that their symbolic function does not obtrude; so that a sense, and the poetic quality of a passage, is not lost to those who do not understand the symbol as such, to whom, for instance, a hawk is a hawk.
I think there is a "fluid" and well as a "solid" content, that some poems may have form as a tree has form, some as water poured into a vase.
It is tremendously important that great poetry be written, it makes not a jot of difference who writes it.
No good poetry is ever written in a manner 20 years old, for to write in such a manner shows conclusively that the writer thinks from book, convention and cliche, and not from life.
Yeats' influence on poetry has been to make it a 'speech without inversions'.
20th century poetry…will, I think, move against poppycock, it will be harder and saner…'nearer the bone'...its force will lie in its truth, its interpretive power…At least for myself, I want it so, austere, direct, free from emotional slither.
And finally a little comic relief:
I believe in everyone writing poetry who wants to; most do. I believe in every man knowing enough music to play 'God bless our home' on the harmonium, but I do not believe in every man giving concerts and printing his sin.