Goethe said that the worst thing in art is technical facility accompanied by triteness. Many an artist, like God, has never needed to think twice about anything. His works are the mad scene from Giselle , on ice skates: he weeps, pulls out his hair holding his wrists like Lifar and tells you what Life is, all at a gliding forty miles an hour.
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Anyone who has read Yeats's wonderful Autobiography will remember his Sligo shabby, shadowed, half country and half sea, full of confused romance, superstition, poverty, eccentricity, unrecognized anachronism, passion and ignorance and the little boy's misery. Yeats was treated well but was bitterly unhappy; he prayed that he would die, and used often to say to himself: "When you are grown up, never talk as grown-up people do of the happiness of childhood.
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Both in verse and in prose [Karl] Shapiro loves, partly out of indignation and partly out of sheer mischievousness, to tell the naked truths or half-truths or quarter-truths that will make anybody's hair stand on end; he is always crying: "But he hasn't any clothes on!" about an emperor who is half the time surprisingly well-dressed.
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I don't need to praise anything so justly famous as Frost 's observation of and empathy with everything in Nature from a hornet to a hillside; and he has observed his own nature, one person's random or consequential chains of thoughts and feelings and perceptions, quite as well. (And this person, in the poems, is not the "alienated artist" cut off from everybody who isn't, yum-yum, another alienated artist; he is someone like normal people only more so a normal person in the less common and more important sense of normal .
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The cat's asleep; I whisper "kitten" Till he stirs a little and begins to purr- He doesn't wake. Today out on the limb (The limb he thinks he can't climb down from) He mewed until I heard him in the house. I climbed up to get him down: he mewed. What he says and what he sees are limited. My own response is even more constricted. I think, "It's lucky; what you have is too." What do you have except-well, me? I joke about it but it's not a joke; The house and I are all he remembers. Next month how will he guess that it is winter And not just entropy, the universe Plunging at last into its cold decline? I cannot think of him without a pang. Poor rumpled thing, why don't you see That you have no more, really, than a man? Men aren't happy; why are you?
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She helped the hunter with the cooking as a husband helps his wife: when he had gone out to hunt and left something to stew, she would take the pot off the fire. But she never knew when to take it off; sometimes it was cooked to pieces, and she never got it right except by accident. But when the accident happened the hunter would laugh and say, "You're as good a cook as my mother!" After all, why should he want her to keep house? If you have a seal that could talk, would you want it to sweep the floor?
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Ruskin says that anyone who expects perfection from a work of art knows nothing of works of art. This is an appealing sentence that, so far as I can see, is not true about a few pictures and statues and pieces of music, short stories and short poems. Whether or not you expect perfection from them, you get it; at least, there is nothing in them that you would want changed. But what Ruskin says is true about novels: anyone who expects perfection from even the greatest novel knows nothing of novels.
Modern" poetry is, essentially, an extension of romanticism; it is what romantic poetry wishes or finds it necessary to become. It is the end product of romanticism, all past and no future; it is impossible to go further by any extrapolation of the process by which we have arrived, and certainly it is impossible to remain where we are who could endure a century of transition ?
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Nowadays when a poet with one privately printed book can have his next three years taken care of by a Guggenheim fellowship, a Kenyon Review fellowship, and the Prix de Rome, it is hard to remember what chances the poet took in that small-town world, how precariously hand-to-mouth his existence was. And yet in one way the old days were better; [Vachel] Lindsay after a while, by luck and skill, got far more readers than any poet could get today.
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If my tone is mocking, the tone of someone accustomed to helplessness, this is natural: the poet is a condemned man for whom the State will not even buy breakfast and as someone said, "If you're going to hang me, you mustn't expect to be able to intimidate me into sparing your feelings during the execution.
When you begin to read a poem you are entering a foreign country whose laws and language and life are a kind of translation of your own; but to accept it because its stews taste exactly like your old mother's hash, or to reject it because the owl-headed goddess of wisdom in its temple is fatter than the Statue of Liberty, is an equal mark of that want of imagination, that inaccessibility to experience, of which each of us who dies a natural death will die.
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[Robert] Frost says in a piece of homely doggerel that he has hoped wisdom could be not only Attic but Laconic, Boeotian even "at least not systematic"; but how systematically Frostian the worst of his later poems are! His good poems are the best refutation of, the most damning comment on, his bad: his Complete Poems have the air of being able to educate any faithful reader into tearing out a third of the pages, reading a third, and practically wearing out the rest.
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I shook myself; I was dreaming. As I went to bed the words of the eighth-grade class's teacher, when the class got to Evangeline , kept echoing in my ears: "We're coming to a long poem now, boys and girls. Now don't be babies and start counting the pages." I lay there like a baby, counting the pages over and over, counting the pages.
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Poetry is a bad medium for philosophy. Everything in the philosophical poem has to satisfy irreconcilable requirements: for instance, the last demand that we should make of philosophy (that it be interesting) is the first we make of a poem; the philosophical poet has an elevated and methodical, but forlorn and absurd air as he works away at his flying tank, his sewing-machine that also plays the piano.
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There are some good things and some fantastic ones in Auden's early attitude; if the reader calls it a muddle I shall acquiesce, with the remark that the later position might be considered a more rarefied muddle. But poets rather specialize in muddles and I have no doubt which of the muddles was better for Auden's poetry: one was fertile and usable, the other decidedly is not. Auden sometimes seems to be saying with Henry Clay, "I had rather be right than poetry"; but I am not sure, then, that he is either.
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An intelligent man said that the world felt Napoleon as a weight, and that when he died it would give a great oof of relief. This is just as true of Byron, or of such Byrons of their days as Kipling and Hemingway: after a generation or two the world is tired of being their pedestal, shakes them of with an oof, and then hoisting onto its back a new world-figure feels the penetrating satisfaction of having made a mistake all its own.
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Goethe said, "The author whom a lexicon can keep up with is worth nothing"; Somerset Maugham says that the finest compliment he ever received was a letter in which one of his readers said: "I read your novel without having to look up a single word in the dictionary." These writers, plainly, lived in different worlds.
Imagism was a reductio ad absurdum of one or two tendencies of romanticism, such a beautifully and finally absurd one that it is hard to believe it existed as anything but a logical construction; and what imagist found it possible to go on writing imagist poetry? A number of poets have stopped writing entirely; others, like recurring decimals, repeat the novelties they commeced with, each time less valuably than before. And there are surrealist poetry, and political poetry, and all the othe refuges of the indigent.
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Some of Mr. Gregory's poems have merely appeared in The New Yorker ; others are New Yorker poems: the inclusive topicality, the informed and casual smartness, the flat fashionable irony, meaningless because it proceeds from a frame of reference whose amorphous superiority is the most definite thing about it they are the trademark not simply of a magazine but of a class.
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Underneath all his writing there is the settled determination to use certain words, to take certain attitudes, to produce a certain atmosphere; what he is seeing or thinking or feeling has hardly any influence on the way he writes. The reader can reply, ironically, "That's what it means to have a style"; but few people have so much of one, or one so obdurate that you can say of it, "It is a style that no subject can change.
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First one gets works of art, then criticism of them, then criticism of the criticism, and, finally, a book on The Literary Situation , a book which tells you all about writers, critics, publishing, paperbacked books, the tendencies of the (literary) time, what sells and how much, what writers wear and drink and want, what their wives wear and drink and want, and so on.
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I think Miss Moore was right to cut "The Steeple-Jack" the poem seems plainer and clearer in its shortened state but she has cut too much... The reader may feel like saying, "Let her do as she pleases with the poem; it's hers, isn't it?" No; it's much too good a poem for that, it long ago became everybody's, and we can protest just as we could if Donatello cut off David's left leg.
Most poets, most good poets even, no longer have the heart to write about what is most terrible in the world of the present: the bombs waiting beside the rockets, the hundreds of millions staring into the temporary shelter of their television sets, the decline of the West that seems less a decline than the fall preceding an explosion.
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