Friday, October 9, 2009

Art—it ain’t for sissies

I am the lucky possessor of On the Limits of Poetry by Allen Tate.  Luckier still, I have read it.   It is a collection of essays released in 1948 about poetry, poets and a couple of other things.


Most recently I have been marveling at “Narcissus as Narcissus” written in 1938.  It is a commentary on his own poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead”The poem itself is good, excellent, hard and you should read it and be familiar with it the second time you read the essay.


The first time you read the essay, read it for what it says about poetry and the work of the poet.  You will discover the best demonstration of the difficult precision of the art of writing poetry I know of.

Tate, in talking about his poem tells and shows us indirectly how much work it takes to write a poem.  Notice the exactitude with which he consciously uses individual words, broken (poetic) feet, broken lines in service to the fuller realization of the poem.  Note too the agony remaining years later over whether changes he made, words he chose, were the right ones.  And re-read the essay to better mine the ore of seemingly off-hand brilliance:

“…the sea boils and pigs have wings because in poetry all things are possible—if you are man enough.”

“Serious poetry deals with fundamental conflicts that cannot be logically resolved:  we can state the conflicts rationally, but reason does not relieve us of them.  their only final coherence is the formal re-creation of art, which ‘freezes’ the experience as permanently as a logical formula, but without, like the formula, leaving all but the logic out.”

Wrestle with this second one:  it is deep, complex and exactly right and a damned good expression of the unresolved and unresolveable logic of good poems.


I would like to quote more but instead will urge you to find the essay and the poem (in that order) and add it to that list of things you go to when your page is blank and you need to prompt yourself into real thought about poetry.  It ain’t for sissies.  (After all, it is art.)

So long for now.

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