"A synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits"; "musical thought"; the unsayable said" - the ways to define poetry seem unlimited and forever partial. This truly is the inner sanctum of literature. It is the way words sound and move and see their way to meaning that astonishes us; it is the very indefinability of the feelings that distinguishes them from the grosser forms of feeling inspired by television and novels, and that humanizes us; it is the rebirth of faith and the renewal of meaning that poetic feeling can command when the holy word awakens the attentive reader. There are those who try to bend poetry to a cause, but if the trick can be performed with the novel or the play, it cannot be done with the poem. Shapely social criticism is not poetry and where poetry does take a social issue as its setting, its real effect must lie elsewhere, in the mysterium of human experience. Poetry is "the real thing", can "blow your mind", is "where it's at", "wants you", will help you "down cemetery road" , let's you know "you're not alone".

Auden distinguishes the misguided poet who has "ideas" to impart from the real poet who "loves words." The classroom reveals two other types: the aspiring poet who never reads any other poems than her own and the one who does. Northrop Frye remarks that one reason to write poetry is to learn how difficult it really is. This insight, and the humility it brings, is worth working hard for. Alas, the self esteem zealots make such insights difficult. It is no reason to stop writing poetry to note that most of what passes for student poetry is bad, if poetry at all. If poetry has the power to move us like no other literary form, then it is not likely an art easily learned. Or, as Yeats once put it:

A line will take us hours maybe:
Yet if it does not seem a moment's thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.


A word on interpretation. Relativism is a view that suggests there is neither good nor bad - it's just however you wish to look at it. Who can say that one poem is any better than another? The four year old will value what the forty year old won't, but, the question goes, is one any better than the other? Doesn't it depend on the viewer? Of course, this is true, but considered exclusively it becomes a silly and even damaging truth. My cat places zero value on all poetry, but that doesn't prevent me from asserting opinions about the worth of various poems and expecting my opinions to be taken more seriously than her critical silence. Everything may be relative, but I'm worried about a society than can't unanimously agree that my violin playing is inferior to Perlman's, that my poems are embarrassing compared to Larkin's, that my critical abilities are a load short of Frye's, that Mategna's Christ is superior to whassisname's piss- christ. Hamlet really said "neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so" and it is just that that is required of us - the thinking to establish that one thing is better than another. Also, we must practice the thinking which will show that some interpretations are better than others. A poem is by its very nature ambiguous. It thrives on it. But to say that a poem may be read in many ways is a far cry from saying it may be read in any way you like it and that no one must say any one way is better than any other. "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" may be about Santa Claus, but if so, it means the poem is both a failure (since so many things would have to fit so awkwardly) and a triviality, a trick, and a weak one at that. To think the poem is a lament for the lost world of beauty which our busy lives divorce us from is less offensive but still imperfect as an acceptable interpretation - it means you haven't read any other Frost and read into the poem what is not there: the idea that nature is a lovely thing. The "right interpretation" had better feel the darkness in this poem. Having limited the poem by listening to its language we are hardly pinned down by the poem. There is still lots of room for the really serious differences in interpretation, or ways of feeling the force of the poem. If, as Emily Dickinson says, each age brings a different lens with which to view the same existence, so too do readers bring their own lenses. But they should not bring their own poems too and then claim Frost wrote them.

Essays on Poetry

  • Harold Bloom on the Condition of American Poetry (1998)- high octane reading!
  • Ann Lauterbach's "Slaves of Fashion" offers loud support for Bloom and insight into the poetic impulse
  • Marjorie Perloff's "Visionary Copmpany" joins in and then extends Bloom's argument
  • James McLatchy's "Hungry for Spirit" remembers the effect of Bloom as teacher

  • Joseph Brodsky's Immodest Proposal

  • 3 Statements on Poetry by e e cummings

  • Wayne Dodd on Poetry

  • T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent"

  • Northrop Frye on the primacy of poetry in the English curriculum

  • Dana Gioia: The State of Poetry Today

  • Jorie Graham Interview

  • Anthony Hecht's On the Laws of the Poetic Art - Chapter One

  • Edward Hirsch on the pleasures of reading poetry, with particular attention to Bishop's "The Art of Losing..."

  • Edward Hirsch offers more about poetry and a selection of recent poems

  • Joan Houlihan takes aim at "prose poetry"

  • Philip Larkin on Writing Poems

  • Richard Wilbur Interview

  • Read Jill Baumgaertner's insightful views on why we should bother with poetry as she reviews four books on how better to read it.

  • Poetry Therapy: an essay by a registered "poetry therapist"

  • The Axioms of Poetry
  • The Identity of the Poet
  • The Authenticity of the Imagination
  • The Vale of Soul-Making
  • Negative Capability

  • Larkin on the Pleasure Principle in Poetry

  • Larkin's "Statement" on Poetry

  • Larkin on Writing Poems

  • A Mary Oliver essay on a poet/carpenter, building a house, growing older, from chapter one of her Winter Hours

  • Cynthia Ozcik on Poetry and Poems

  • Robert Pack's God Keep Me a Damned Fool

  • Louis Rubin Jr on Poetic Style: High and Low

  • Carl Sandburg's Ten Definitions of Poetry

  • Anne Stevenson is interviewed and finishes strongly with excellent general advice and warning on becoming a poet

  • Il Postino: As good a movie about poetry as Dead Poets' Society was bad

  • Rhythm (from a chapter in Western Wind by John Frederick Nims)
  • An admiring review of a book on rhythm, particularly iambic

    On Poets and Poems

  • Helen Vendler on the poetic life of Matthew Arnold, including fine insights into "Dover Beach."

  • Elizabeth Bishop's last sonnet is here, at Atlantic Monthly's "Soundings" page, as well as four readings of the poem. Find the same also for Frost, Lowell, Coleridge, Clare, Dickinson, Shakespeare, Hardy and more. Terrific!

  • Northrop Frye's Commentary on Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
  • Robert Bly remembers the power of Blake's "Marriage..." on a budding poet's consciousness
  • Blake's Experienced Sweeper
  • Blake's Experienced Song
  • Blake's Innocent Song (1)
  • Blake's Innocent Song (2)
  • Blake's Tyger by Bruce Borowski - a lengthy survey of Tyger criticism
  • A Brief Tribute to Billy Blake
  • Blake and the Antinomians by James Stanger

  • Alfred Kazin is a great critic and a Blake fan. Here is his introduction to the poetry of William Blake

  • Frank Kermode introduces Beowulf and discusses Seamus Heaney's new translation

  • Browning's "My Last Duchess": Read Richard Howard's brilliant sequel where the messenger replies to the Count.
  • Anthony Hecht comments on both Browning's Duchess and Howard's sequel
  • "The Many-Walled World of 'Andrea del Sarto': The Dynamics of Self-Expatriation"-a scholarly study by Keith Polette

  • Symbolism of Sun and Moon In Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner
  • A book review which serves as an entertaining biography of Coleridge

  • Joyce Carol Oates on "The Essential Emily Dickinson"
  • "Imagining Emily" by Elizabeth Schmidt -an affectionate reflection on Dickinson's poems

  • John Donne's Meditation 17 on bells and islands

  • Roger Kimball defends T. S. Eliot against the next generation of detractors
  • Helen Vendler chooses T. S. Eliot as the poet of the century

  • Seamus Heaney's Generous Vision

  • John Hollander's "Owl" followed by a criticism of the poem and a response by Hollander

  • "'Barbarous in Beauty': The Violence of Time in the Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins" -a scholarly paper by Margaret M. Morlier
  • "Sprung Rhythm: Purged of Dross Like Gold" -a scholarly paper on the Hopkins' sprung rhythm focussing on "The Caged Skylark"

  • Cleanth Brooks on Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn"
  • Stephen Dedalus Defines Art and Beauty for Lynch: chapter 5 of Joyce's Portrait of the Artist...
  • An Interview with Philosopher Elaine Scarry on Beauty
  • Dennis Dutton, founder of Arts&Letters Daily, chooses justice over mercy in demolishing Prof. Scarry's new book On Beauty and Being Just
  • An Essay on Beauty and Judgement by Alexander Nehamas
  • "Beauty is truth, truth beauty": see how one line from Keats' "...Urn" can generate discussion and controversy
    (e-mail + discussion list)

  • "Larkin's Sacramental Vision" (1)
  • "Larkin's Sacramental Vision" (2)

  • "Without Metaphysics: The Poetry of Philip Larkin" by Brother Anthony

  • Philip Larkin on the Poetry of Thomas Hardy

  • "Mad Poets Society" - An account of Maclean Asylum and its Poet residents: Plath, Lowell, and Sexton

  • On The Life of Theodore Roethke
  • Theodore Roethke's "The Waking" - an interpretation

  • A Detailed Study of Shakespeare's Sonnets 1 and 30 by Vendler
  • Helen Vendler offers Hamlet as her choice of the best poem of the millenium
  • Bloom on Shakespeare and Freud
  • Postmodern versions of bowdlerized Shakespeare: concerns about directorial license in the staging of Shakespeare

  • Yeats' Two Byzantiums (1)
  • Yeats' Two Byzantiums (2)
  • "Two Geeks on Their Way to Byzantium": an interview with Richard Powers on his new novel Plowing the Dark

    Sample Essays and Advice for the High School Student from Mr. Bauld

  • General Thoughts Concerning the Study of Poetry

  • Sample Essay on Owen's "Dulce Et Decorum Est"

  • Sample Essay on Alden Nowlan's "The Bull Moose"

  • A Review of Tantramar Theatre's Production of King Lear

    Interpretations of Poems in 541/441/431 English Culled From Explicator Magazine etc.

  • Countee Cullen's "Thus Do I Marvel"
  • John Donne's "Sonnet 14" (Batter My Heart)
  • T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men"
  • T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"
  • George Herbert's "The Collar"
  • Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress"
  • Theodore Roethke's "My Papa's Waltz"
  • Shakespeare's "Sonnet 73"
  • W. B. Yeats' "Sailing To Byzantium"
  • W.B. Yeats' "The Second Coming" 1
  • W. B. Yeats' "The Second Coming" 2

  • A now retired site containing an amusingly irreverent collection of "bad poetry" reviews--all by the same person(Erich Vogel) (100k)

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