Have Hit a Major Roadblock – POETS ON POETRY – No “Emotional Slither!”

ShelleyMy library is fated to swell and I to be buried in the falling, cascading books from the shelves. An appropriate end for a misspent life, I suppose, monomaniacally focused on books.

Have unearthed a modest looking old paperback anthology entitled POETS ON POETRY (amazing! it’s still in print! click that link!) which I haven’t seen in years. Dog-eared (but not yet dog buried), it collects the landmark essays by major poets (and a few critics) dealing with the crucial question: what is poetry and why should we bother with it?

No small fry gabbers are included, only essays by those who helped define and refine our views of “poetry,” what makes it good/great, how and why.

An epigraph from that old lyrical over-educated cozzener, take-no-prisoners Ezra Pound is on the verso of the title page. Amazing to me how much we read, assimilate over the years and forget where the influences and wisdom originated:

As to twentieth century poetry, and the poetry which I expect to be written during the next decade or so, it will, I think, move against poppycock. It will be harder and saner … it will be “nearer to the bone” … I want it so austere, direct, free from emotional slither.

EZRA POUND, From “Retrospect”

I wonder if he was institutionalized at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital when he wrote this.  He was in a land of dreamy dreams to judge what has ensued in the late 20th and early 21st centuries as regards poetry.

I do like the term”emotional slither,” though!

The contents of this little book are the creme de la creme, poet-critics whose exhortations about poesy are still read and taught, poets with insight about the art and craft, the real biggies down through the ages:

SIR PHILLIP SIDNEY, An Apology for Poetry

BEN JONSON, Timber, or Discovery

JOHN DRYDEN, The Author’s Apology for Heroic Poetry and Poetic License

SAMUEL JOHNSON, A Preface to Shakespeare

WILLIAM WORDSWORTH, Preface to the Lyrical Ballads





EDGAR ALLEN POE, The Poetic Principle

MATTHEW ARNOLD, The Study of Poetry

T.S. ELIOT, The Music of Poetry

ALLEN TATE, Tension in Poetry

WALLACE STEVENS, Two or Three Ideas

E.E. CUMMINGS, Three Statements

‘The history of poetry and how we view it is succinctly and passionately declaimed by these major writers in such memorable, timeless phrasing, with such wit and insight, that I fear this is the sort of overview our poetic dabblers, wannabes and stuttering-blurt versifiers could never plumb. So sad.

More on this soon:) Bottle rockets going off in my imagination ….


About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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6 Responses to Have Hit a Major Roadblock – POETS ON POETRY – No “Emotional Slither!”

  1. insaneowl says:

    Reblogged this on insaneowl and commented:
    Wow, I loved this and had to reblog it. 🙂


  2. jef says:

    Great find and reporting! I see now that by ‘roadblock’ you mean you are temporarily waylaid by the rediscovery of your old pal. Pound’s remarks are interesting. I’m no Ezra scholar but he seems almost to be wishing more coherence into the future poetic form, possibly exhausted by his own reputation for impenetrability. It is true that in his (and Eliot’s) wake a wave of reactionary plainspoken poets did emerge (you know much more about this than I, Margaret), and the arguable resulting ‘dumbing down’ of the form in many poets has been the result, but also the catalyst of more people trying their hand and adding to the useful cacophony of music. The idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ poets is as baseless as much criticism, though I have my own such lists, of course! I’m constantly telling my kids, particularly my on-again off-again jazz pianist 19 year-old: if a piece of ‘crap’ art (Miley Cyrus praising her party habits in song, for instance ) makes someone feel something strongly, it is effective ‘art’. Which is to say Pound failed where Rod McKuen ringingly succeeded. Though you didn’t hear it from me. I’ll puzzle over a Pound for a year before even briefly regarding a McKuen saltine, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching that one is ‘good’. Keep the dispatches coming, Margaret. I’ve already learned an unreasonable amount of stuff from you, of the kind I’m starved for (I know; prepositional craw-stick). And I’d be interested in your views on this old good art/bad art dichotomy sometime. If you’ve already addressed it in a previous entry, point me to it!


    • The good/bad poetry thing requires an essay, Jeff, not a quip or smart remark from me. The book I mentioned above, cumulatively with all its myriad views and from essentially the history of poetry in English, is a damn good point of departure and resource for considering your question.

      There is no accounting for taste, but there is such a thing as craft, talent, an uncanny gift for metaphor that surprises and “makes things new” in the eyes of the reader. There is such a thing as insight/intelligence that leavens the whole and makes it lasting and sweet. The quality of the imagination brought to bear in a poem is hard to account for, is ineffable, hard to define, but you know it when you read or hear it. A great poem bowls you over, sets you on your ear.

      But that quality varies according to the depth and breadth of one’s reading, education and sophistication. No accident though that the higher the bar is set in these areas, the more likely a poem is to stand the test of time and to be read hundreds of years after it was written.

      More on this later! (wink)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love it when I rediscover a lost gem buried in my bookshelves. Enjoy the treasure 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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