Hello again, dear Wordsmiths!
I love to read not only all your poems and stories, but also your background notes (if any). The whole process of writing is endlessly fascinating to me.
Poems about poetry and the writing of poetry
Forty-odd years ago when I first discovered my tribe of other poets in Melbourne, and then the rest of Australia, there was a belief current among many of them that one ‘shouldn’t’ write poems about writing poetry. It was considered too inward-looking, too self-centred, not likely to speak to people in general.
And yet, many poets have done it, starting with Horace in ancient Rome, with a piece titled Ars Poetica which gave the practice its name. That means ‘the art of poetry’ but has come to be used for poems about poetry. Hands up anyone here who hasn’t done it, at least once? No-one? I thought so!
Of course the subject fascinates us – and if those poems only speak to other poets, well, these days there are a lot of us around. (And anyway, I subscribe to the view that there should be no 'shoulds' in writing poetry.)
A favourite quote from one such poem is:
… poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.
– Czeslaw Miłosz: Arts Poetica?
perhaps explained by an earlier verse in the same poem:
In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn't know we had in us,
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
and stood in the light, lashing his tail.
Don’t you love it? Oh, I want at least some of my poems to be tigers! (Though I might want others to be flowers, or breezes, or sea-shells.)
However, I also love the more traditional view in these lines by James Elroy Flecker, from The Golden Journey to Samarkand:
We who with songs beguile your pilgrimage
And swear that Beauty lives though lilies die,
We Poets of the proud old lineage
Who sing to find your hearts, we know not why …
My very favourite piece of ars poetica, expressing a similar sentiment, is:
In My Craft or Sullen Art
In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms
I labour by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.
Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages
Nor heed my craft or art.
Another which runs that very close in my estimation is:
By Yannis Ritsos
translated by Rae Dalven
There are certain verses—sometimes entire poems—
whose meaning even I don’t know. What I don’t know
sustains me still. And you are right to ask. Don’t ask me.
I don’t know, I tell you.
Two parallel lights
from the same center. The sound of the water
falling in winter from the overflowing drainpipe
or the sound of a drop as it falls
from a rose in the watered garden
very slowly on a spring evening
like the sob of a bird. I don’t know
what this sound means; nevertheless I accept it.
Whatever else I know I explain to you. I don’t neglect it.
But these things too add to our lives. As she was sleeping
I watched her knee squaring the sheet—
It wasn’t only love. That angle
was the crest of tenderness, and the fragrance
of the sheet, the cleanness and of the springtime completed
that inexplicable thing I sought, again in vain, to explain to you.
Stories about story-telling
Let’s not entirely neglect the storytellers among us (even while acknowledging that poems can be stories too). Stories about storytelling include The Neverending Story (book and film), the Australian non-fiction study Finding Eliza by Larissa Behrendt – and the famous originator, a whole lot of separate stories within a story about story-telling: The Arabian Nights.
Next week, Magaly will ask us to find
inspiration in the phrase “time affects all things”.
Image of writer by Brent Gorwin on Unsplash.
Note: My favourites have lasted over the years. Some of you may recall the poems quoted above from our old days as Poets United – but I thought such wonderful lines could bear repeating.