Alex E. Blazer Course Site Teaching Portfolio

What Is Poetry?

For all good poets, epic as well as lyric, compose their beautiful poems not by art, but because they are inspired and possessed.

Ion (c. 390 BC)


 . . . so in the soul of each man, as we shall maintain, the imitative poet implants an evil constitution, for he indulges the irrational nature which has no discernment of greater and less, but thinks the same thing at one time great and at another small—he is an imitator of images and is very far removed from the truth.

—Plato, The Republic (373 BC)


The poet being an imitator, like a painter or any other artist, must of necessity imitate one of three objects—things as they were or are, things as they are said or thought to be, or things as they ought to be.

—Aristotle, Poetics (330 BC)


To write poetry is measure-taking, understood in the strict sense of the word, by which man first receives the measure for the breadth of his being.

—Martin Heidegger, ". . . Poetically Man Dwells . . .," Poetry, Language, Thought (Harper, 1975)


It is asked whether a praiseworthy poem is the product of Nature or of conscious Art. For my own part, I do not see the value of study without native ability, nor of genius without training: so completely does each depend on the other and blend with it.

—Horace, Art of Poetry (20 BC)


The end of writing is to instruct; the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing.

—Samuel Johnson, Preface to Shakespeare (1765)


Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge—it is as immortal as the heart of man. . . . the poet is chiefly distinguished from other men by a greater promptness to think and feel without immediate external excitement, and a greater power in expressing such thoughts and feelings as are produced in him in that manner. But these passions and thoughts and feelings are the general passions and thoughts and feelings of men.

—William Wordsworth, Preface to the Second Edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800)


All forms are perfect in the poet's mind, but these are not abstracted nor compounded from nature, but are from imagination.

—William Blake, "The Ancient Britons," A Descriptive Catalogue (1809)


What is poetry? is so nearly the same question with, what is a poet? that the answer to the one is involved in the solution of the other. For it is a distinction resulting from the poetic genius itself, which sustains and modifies the images, thoughts and emotions of the poet's own mind. The poet, described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity. He diffuses a tone and spirit of unity that blends and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination.

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria (1815)


A poem is the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth. Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar. . . .

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, "A Defense of Poetry" (1840)


By virtue of this science the poet is the namer or language-maker, naming things sometimes after their appearance, sometimes after their essence, and giving to every one its own name and not another's, thereby rejoicing the intellect, thereby rejoicing the intellect, which delights in detachment or boundary. The poets made all the words, and therefore language is the archives of history, and, if we must say it, a sort of tomb of the Muses.

—Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Poet" (1843)


The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.

           —Walt Whitman, Preface to the 1855 Edition of Leaves of Grass 


A book or poem which has no pity in it had better not be written.

—Oscar Wilde


 . . . the objective world is only the original, still unconscious poetry of the spirit.

—F. W. J. Schelling, Works: Collected Works (1907)


Contrahit orator, variant in carmine vates. (The orator summarizes; the poet or prophet amplifies or transforms.)

—James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1914) 


We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.

—W. B. Yeats, from "Anima Hominis" (1917)


Poetry, ladies and gentleman: an expression of infinitude, an expression of vain death and of mere Nothing.

—Paul Celan


A poem should not mean but be.

—Archibald MacLeish, "Ars Poetica" (1926)


Ransack the language as he might, words failed him. . . . the words coming on the pants of his breath with the passion of a poet whose poetry is half pressed out of him by pain.

—Virginia Woolf, Orlando (1928)


Poetry is concerned with using with abusing, with losing with wanting, with denying with avoiding with adoring with replacing the noun. . . . Poetry is doing nothing but using losing refusing and pleasing and betraying and caressing nouns. . . . I made poetry and what did I do I caressed completely caressed and addressed a noun.

—Gertrude Stein, "Poetry and Grammar" (1935)


You explain this world to me with an image. I realize then that you have been reduced to poetry: I shall never know.

—Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Stories (1942)


Philosophy ought really to be written only as a form of poetry.

—Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value


Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.

—T. S. Eliot, "Philip Massinger," Selected Essays (1950)


I don't see why people should want to 'understand' everything in a poem.

—Basil Bunting, letter to Alan Neame (1951)


The poem of the mind in the act of finding What will suffice.

—Wallace Stevens, "Of Modern Poetry," Parts of a World (1951)


The primary source and subject matter of a poem, therefore, are the attributes and actions of the poet's own mind; or if aspects of the external world, then these only as they are converted from fact to poetry by the feelings and operations of the poet's mind.

—M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (1953)


That poetry is linked to the impossibility which is thought, this the truth which cannot disclose itself, because it always turns away, requiring that he experience it beneath the point at which he would really experience it. this is not only a metaphysical difficulty, it is the ravishment of suffering, and poetry is this perpetual suffering, it is 'darkness' and 'the night of the soul', 'the absence of a voice to cry out'.

—Maurice Blanchot, "Artaud" (1956)


There is poetry whenever writing introduces us to a world other than our own and also makes it become our own, making present a being, a certain fundamental relationship. . . . Poetry is the creation of a subject adopting a new order of symbolic relations to the world.

—Jacques Lacan, Seminar, Book III: The Psychoses, 1955-1956 (1993)


The poem supreme, addressed to

emptiness—this is the courage


necessary. . . .

—Robert Creeley, "The Dishonest Mailman," For Love (1962)


In one sense the poet or painter is the passive vessel of revelation. In another sense he might almost be said to create the spiritual reality his work evokes, for it has no earthly existence before he has made his poem or painted his painting.

—J. Hillis Miller, Poets of Reality (1965)


 . . . because there are times when silence is a poem.

—John Fowles, The Magus (1965/1978)


Cultural criticism finds itself faced with the final stage of the dialectic of culture and barbarism. To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.

—Theodor Adorno, "Cultural Criticism and Society," Prisms (1967)


It seems that the poems and the songs of protest and liberation are always too late or two early: memory or dream.


Is it possible to write poetry after Auschwitz?

—Herbert Marcusse, An Essay on Liberation (1968)


Listen, real poetry doesn't say anything, it just ticks off the possibilities. Opens all doors. You can walk through any one that suits you.

—Jim Morrison


Poetic Influence—when it involves two strong, authentic poets,—always proceeds by a misreading of the prior poet, an act of creative correction that is actually and necessarily a misinterpretation. The history of fruitful poetic influence, which is to say the main tradition of Western poetry since the Renaissance, is a history of anxiety and self-saving caricature, of distortion, of perverse, wilful revisionism without which modern poetry as such could not exist.


Every poem is a misinterpretation of a parent poem. A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety.


     Poetry is the anxiety of influence, is misprision, is a disciplined perverseness. Poetry is misunderstanding, misinterpretation, misalliance.

Poetry (Romance) is a Family Romance. Poetry is the enchantment of incest, disciplined by resistance to that enchantment.

—Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1971/1997)


Language does not become poetry for us until we know that language is telling us lies, because the truth is ambivalence and so also already death.

—Harold Bloom, Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (1982)


There was virtue in scraps, mysterium in fragments, magical power in the tatter of a poem, sacred words biting on congruent actualities of sight and feeling and breath.

—Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (1971)


Poetry begins with our awareness, not of a Fall, but that we are falling.

—Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, 2nd ed. (1973/1997)


Poetry is nothing more than an intensification or illumination of common objects and everyday events until they shine with their singular nature, until we can experience their power, until we can follow their steps in the dance, until we can discern what parts they play in the Great Order of Love. How is this done? By fucking around with syntax.

—Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues (1976)


the artistic . . . is purposely created to deautomatize the perception, . . . the goal of its creation is that it be seen, . . . so that perception is arrested in it and attains the greatest possible force and duration, so that the thing is perceived, not spatially, but, so to speak, in its continuity. . . . Thus we arrive at the definition of poetry that is braked, distorted. Poetic speech is a speech construction.

—Victor Shklovsky, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship (1978)


It is always what is under pressure in us, especially under pressure of concealment—that explodes in poetry.

—Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (1979)


As for we who "love to be astonished," consciousness is durable in poetry.

—Lyn Hejinian, My Life (1980/1987)


Poetry's uselessness as a commodity is in direct conflict with its necessity as a product.

—Ron Silliman, Tjanting (1981)


For the poet the anguishing question—and it is indeed the subject of the poem—is: how can one not only speak of Being, but say Being itself. Poetry is the experience of this question.

—Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight (1983)


The poem as simultaneous structure, impersonal, autonomous, released from the charge of expression, of assertion; the poem as arbitrary construct, absurd, self-destroying, no longer aspiring to convince or even to hoax; the poem as agent of transformation, equal in value to the poet himself and therefore capable of changing him; the poem as means of escape from identity; leading into a world of contemplation, indifference, bliss.

—Source Unknown, qtd. in Ray DiPalma, "Tying and Untying"

Eds. Andrews and Bernstein, The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Book (1984)


Poetic language can do nothing but originate anew over and over again; it is always constitutive, able to posit regardless of presence but, by the same token, unable to give a foundation to what it posits except as an intent of consciousness. The word is always a free presence to the mind, the means by which the permanence of natural entities can be put into question and thus negated, time and again, in the endlessly widening spiral of the dialectic.

—Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism (1984)


Is the heart of poetry a stillness, and my beloved

momentum something else, additional, mongrel?

—Clark Coolidge, The Crystal Text (1986/1995)


This is the poetic act,

the poem being formed from the scission

of the self where its imaginary total

shatters in real time as it meets

its alienated social material

and sits ejected from eternity viewing

the narrative of its salvation

as told to a country for whom

daily life requires a

motionless world as a backdrop

and a never-ending description

pronounced by actors whose wage scales

are all that's left of history.

—Bob Perelman, "Clippings," Captive Audience (1988)


by which she would recognize that poetry

isn't revolution but a way of knowing

why it must come.

—Adrienne Rich, "Dreamwood," Time's Power, Poems 1985-1988 (1989)


Multiples. Variables. Yet tending to a unity nevertheless: Unity is always a possibility in or behind a work where the poet seeks multiple meanings in one word, where meanings are permitted to accrete to words, to proliferate, where the poem is a deliberate remembering of possible meanings, rather than, by choice, a forgetting, "like gathering flowers."

—Peter Quartermain, Disjunctive Poetics (1992)


In a political culture of managed spectacles and passive spectators, poetry appears as a rift, a peculiar lapse, in the prevailing mode. The reading of a poem, a poetry reading, is not a spectacle, nor can it be passively received.

—Adrienne Rich, What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (1993)


             I gave up poetry for history in my youth.


(I) I gave up youth.

                        Why did you give up youth?

    (a) I was no good at it. Have your youth later, I said, when you are better equipped . . .

                        Poetry stood for order, rule, and regulation, didn't it?

                                    Not in my mind.

                        -i- It represented riot and wilderness and inner regard.

                        -ii- It represented fire, war, wonderment, and faithful dedication.

                        -iii- It stood for what might, what could, what would, what should essentially Be. It was written as if from the future. It saved with praise whatever was passing, while history hurried it along, and lowered life into its grave with solemn pontification. An event enters history because it is over; dead, it is buried in blame like a pigeon in its own shit or a gull in its guano. It should be clear—plain to any person—open to any eye—that historical chronicles are chronologies of crime, and that any recital of the past constitutes an indictment.

You appear to hate history.

I love History because I hate Time and all Time contains.


I didn't understand then (I wasn't as quick as the slick brown fox) that poetry was the inside of history, was the interior of the text, was the present alive in what had past, was what sustained itself through every change of tense.

—William H. Gass, The Tunnel (1995)


The poem seeks its truth in going to the other, it draws out a relation, a relation that is open-ended like the question posed by the poem. . . .  To the extent that all poetry is encounter . . . we may presume that it proceeds from and embodies a countering word which opens the possibility of relation by opening to the other in its otherness.

—Christopher Fynsk, Language & Relation: . . . that there is language (1996)


Or perhaps poetic "uniqueness" in our postromantic age is less a matter of authenticity of individual expression than of sensitivity to the language pool on which the poet draws in re-creating and redefining the world as he or she has found it.

—Marjorie Perloff, Wittgenstein's Ladder (1996)


In the poetic imagination, subject and world are blended together so that they can, subsequently, be frozen in the work of art. This "freezing" of thinking is essentially different from the fossilized working of conceptual thinking: the unity evoked in the poetic work is not definitively fixed, as in theoretical concepts, but rather it maintains in potential its liquidity. In our interpretation of the work, it recuperates this liquidity once again.

—Jos de Mul, Romantic Desire in (Post)Modern Art & Philosophy (1999)


For me, poetry has its beginning and ending outside thought.

—John Ashbery, Other Traditions (2001)


If you come across an epiphanic quote regarding poetry, please send it to me at