Randall Jarrell

From Wikiquote
Jump to: navigation, search
A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.
If you’re going to hang me, you mustn’t expect to be able to intimidate me into sparing your feelings during the execution.

Randall Jarrell (6 May 191415 October 1965) was an American poet, novelist, critic, children's book author and essayist.

Quotes[edit]

General sources[edit]

  • Sometimes it is hard to criticize, one wants only to chronicle. The good and mediocre books come in from week to week, and I put them aside and read them and think of what to say; but the "worthless" books come in day after day, like the cries and truck sounds from the street, and there is nothing that anyone could think of that is good enough for them. In the bad type of thin pamphlets, in hand-set lines on imported paper, people's hard lives and hopeless ambitions have expressed themselves more directly and heartbreakingly than they have ever expressed in any work of art: it is as if the writers had sent you their ripped-out arms and legs, with "This is a poem" scrawled on them in lipstick. After a while one is embarrassed not so much for them as for poetry, which is for these poor poets one more of the openings against which everyone in the end beats his brains out; and one finds it unbearable that poetry should be so hard to write — a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey in which there is for most of the players no tail, no donkey, not even a booby prize.
    • "Verse Chronicle," The Nation (1946-02-23); reprinted as "Bad Poets" in Poetry and the Age (1953)
  • If there were only some mechanism (like Seurat's proposed system of painting, or the projected Universal Algebra that Gödel believes Leibnitz to have perfected and mislaid) for reasonably and systematically converting into poetry what we see and feel and are! When one reads the verse of people who cannot write poems — people who sometimes have more intelligence, sensibility, and moral discrimination than most of the poets — it is hard not to regard the Muse as a sort of fairy godmother who says to the poet, after her colleagues have showered on him the most disconcerting and ambiguous gifts, "Well, never mind. You're still the only one that can write poetry."
    • "Verse Chronicle," The Nation (1946-02-23); reprinted as "Bad Poets" in Poetry and the Age (1953)
  • 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.
    • "The Obscurity of the Poet," Harvard University lecture (1950-08-15) delivered at the Harvard University Summer School Conference on the Defense of Poetry (August 14-17, 1950); reprinted in Partisan Review, XVIII (January/February 1951) and published in Poetry and the Age (1953)
  • One of our universities recently made a survey of the reading habits of the American public; it decided that forty-eight percent of all Americans read, during a year, no book at all. I picture to myself that reader — that non-reader, rather; one man out of every two — and I reflect, with shame: "Our poems are too hard for him." But so, too, are Treasure Island, Peter Rabbit, pornographic novels — any book whatsoever.
    • "The Obscurity of the Poet," Harvard University lecture (1950-08-15), published in Poetry and the Age (1953)
  • If we meet an honest and intelligent politician, a dozen, a hundred, we say that they aren't like politicians at all, and our category of politician stays unchanged; we know what politicians are like.
    • "The Intellectual in America" (1955), from A Sad Heart at the Supermarket (1962)
  • The climate of our culture is changing. Under these new rains, new suns, small things grow great, and what was great grows small; whole species disappear and are replaced.
    • "A Sad Heart at the Supermarket," Daedalus, vol. 89, no. 2 (Spring 1960); published in A Sad Heart at the Supermarket (1962)
  • One of the most obvious facts about grown-ups to a child is that they have forgotten what it is like to be a child.
  • Delmore carries such a petty, personally involved, New Yorkish atmosphere around with him it's almost unpleasant for me to see him. He thinks that Schiller and St Paul were just two Partisan Review editors.
    • Quoted in Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Books of the Times," The New York Times (1985-05-06) [1]. The quote is cited from a 1952 letter in Randall Jarrell's Letters: An Autobiographical and Literary Selection, ed. Mary Jarrell, assisted by Stuart Wright (Houghton Mifflin, 1985).
  • I think that one possible definition of our modern culture is that it is one in which nine-tenths of our intellectuals can't read any poetry.
    • As quoted in Peter's Quotations: Ideas for Our Times (1993) by Laurence J. Peter, p. 391

Blood for a Stranger (1942)[edit]

  • I see at last that all the knowledge

    I wrung from the darkness — that the darkness flung me —
    Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
    The darkness from the darkness.
    Pain comes from the darkness
    And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

    • "90 North," lines 28-32
  • The nurse is the night
    To wake to, to die in: and the day I live,
    The world and its life are her dreams.
    • "Variations," lines 31-33
  • And the world said, Child, you will not be missed.
    You are cheaper than a wrench, your back is a road;
    Your death is a table in a book.
    You had our wit, our heart was sealed to you:
    Man is the judgment of the world.
    • "Variations," lines 40-44

Little Friend, Little Friend (1945)[edit]

  • From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
    And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
    Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
    I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
    When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

Losses (1948)[edit]

  • For this last savior, man,
    I have lied as I lie now. But what is lying?
    Men wash their hands in blood, as best they can:
    I find no fault in this just man.
    • "Eighth Air Force," lines 16-20
  • We read our mail and counted up our missions —
    In bombers named for girls, we burned
    The cities we had learned about in school —
    Till our lives wore out; our bodies lay among
    The people we had killed and never seen.

    When we lasted long enough they gave us medals;
    When we died they said, "Our casualties were low."
    They said, "Here are the maps"; we burned the cities.
    • "Losses," lines 21-28

The Seven-League Crutches (1951)[edit]

  • The soul has no assignments, neither cooks
    Nor referees: it wastes its time.
    It wastes its time.
    Here in this enclave there are centuries
    For you to waste: the short and narrow stream
    Of life meanders into a thousand valleys
    Of all that was, or might have been, or is to be.
    The books, just leafed through, whisper endlessly.
    • "A Girl in a Library," lines 32-29
  • The ways we miss our lives are life.
    • "A Girl in a Library," line 92
  • Somewhere there must be
    Something that's different from everything.
    All that I've never thought of — think of me!
    • "A Sick Child," lines 18-20
  • His eye a ring inside a ring inside a ring
    That leers up, joyless, vile, in meek obscenity —
    This is the devil. Flesh to flesh, he bleats
    The herd back to the pit of being.
    • "The Knight, Death and the Devil," lines 17-20
  • Death and the devil, what are these to him?
    His being accuses him — and yet his face is firm
    In resolution, in absolute persistence;
    The folds of smiling do for steadiness;
    The face is its own fate — a man does what he must
    And the body underneath it says: I am.
    • "The Knight, Death and the Devil," lines 34-39

Poetry and the Age (1953)[edit]

A book of essays; pagination conforms to the Vintage paperback (1955)
  • When I was asked to talk about the Obscurity of the Modern Poet I was delighted, for I have suffered from this obscurity all my life. But then I realized that I was being asked to talk not about the fact that people don’t read poetry, but about the fact that most of them wouldn’t understand it if they did: about the difficulty, not the neglect, of contemporary poetry. And yet it is not just modern poetry, but poetry, that is today obscure. Paradise Lost is what it was; but the ordinary reader no longer makes the mistake of trying to read it — instead he glances at it, weighs it in his hand, shudders, and suddenly, his eyes shining, puts it on his list of the ten dullest books he has ever read, along with Moby-Dick, War and Peace, Faust, and Boswell’s Life of Johnson. But I am doing this ordinary reader an injustice: it was not the Public, nodding over its lunch-pail, but the educated reader, the reader the universities have trained, who a few weeks ago, to the Public’s sympathetic delight, put together this list of the world’s dullest books.
    Since most people know about the modern poet only that he is obscure—i.e., that he is difficult, i.e., that he is neglected — they naturally make a causal connection between the two meanings of the word, and decide that he is unread because he is difficult. Some of the time this is true: the poet seems difficult because he is not read, because the reader is not accustomed to reading his or any other poetry.
    • “The Obscurity of the Poet”, p. 3
  • If we were in the habit of reading poets their obscurity would not matter; and, once we are out of the habit, their clarity does not help.
    • “The Obscurity of the Poet”, p. 4
  • How poet and public stared at each other with righteous indignation, till the poet said, “Since you won’t read me, I’ll make sure you can’t” — is one of the most complicated and interesting of stories.
    • “The Obscurity of the Poet”, p. 12
  • 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.
    • “The Obscurity of the Poet”, p. 17
  • 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.
    • “The Obscurity of the Poet”, p. 17
  • Art matters not merely because it is the most magnificent ornament and the most nearly unfailing occupation of our lives, but because it is life itself.
    • “The Obscurity of the Poet”, p. 21
  • Human life without some form of poetry is not human life but animal existence.
    • "The Obscurity of the Poet", p. 22
  • People always ask: For whom does the poet write? He needs only to answer, For whom do you do good? Are you kind to your daughter because in the end someone will pay you for being?... The poet writes his poem for its own sake, for the sake of that order of things in which the poem takes the place that has awaited it.
    • “The Obscurity of the Poet”, p. 24
  • 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.)
    • “The Other Frost”, p. 29
  • This poet is now, most of the time, an elder statesman like Baruch or Smuts, full of complacent wisdom and cast-iron whimsy. But of course there was always a good deal of this in the official rôle that Frost created for himself; one imagines Yeats saying about Frost, as Sarah Bernhardt said about Nijinsky: “I fear, I greatly fear, that I have just seen the greatest actor in the world.”
    Sometimes it is this public figure, this official rôle — the Only Genuine Robert Frost in Captivity — that writes the poems, and not the poet himself; and then one gets a self-made man’s political editorials, full of cracker-box philosophizing, almanac joke-cracking — of a snake-oil salesman’s mysticism; one gets the public figure’s relishing consciousness of himself, an astonishing constriction of imagination and sympathy; one gets sentimentality and whimsicality; an arch complacency, a complacent archness; and one gets Homely Wisdom till the cows come home.
    • “The Other Frost”, pp. 30–31
  • 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.
    • “To the Laodiceans”, p. 37
  • Taking the chance of making a complete fool of himself — and, sometimes, doing so — is the first demand that is made upon any real critic: he must stick his neck out just as the artist does, if he is to be of any real use to art.
    • “The Age of Criticism”, p. 79
  • As Blake said, there is no competition between true poets.
    • “John Ransom’s Poetry”, p. 98
  • One Whitman is miracle enough, and when he comes again it will be the end of the world.
    • “Some Lines from Whitman”, p. 119
  • 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.
    • “Reflections on Wallace Stevens”, p. 127, originally in Partisan Review, Vol. 18, (May/June 1951)
  • When you’re young you try to be methodical and philosophical, but reality keeps breaking in.
    • “Reflections on Wallace Stevens”, p. 129
  • All his tunk-a-tunks, his hoo-goo-boos — those mannered, manufactured, individual, uninteresting little sound-inventions — how typical they are of the lecture-style of the English philosopher, who makes grunts or odd noises, uses homely illustrations, and quotes day in and day out from Alice, in order to give what he says some appearance of that raw reality it so plainly and essentially lacks. These “tootings at the wedding of the soul” are fun for the tooter, but get as dreary for the reader as do all the foreign words — a few of these are brilliant, a few more pleasant, and the rest a disaster: “one cannot help deploring his too extensive acquaintance with the foreign languages”, as Henry James said, of Walt Whitman, to Edith Wharton.
    • “Reflections on Wallace Stevens”, p. 129
  • It is G.E. Moore at the spinet.
    • “Reflections on Wallace Stevens”, p. 131
  • How necessary it is to think of the poet as somebody who has prepared himself to be visited by a dæmon, as a sort of accident-prone worker to whom poems happen — for otherwise we expect him to go on writing good poems, better poems, and this is the one thing you cannot expect even of good poets, much less of anybody else. Good painters in their sixties may produce good pictures as regularly as an orchard produces apples; but Planck is a great scientist because he made one discovery as a young man — and I can remember reading in a mathematician’s memoirs a sentence composedly recognizing the fact that, since the writer was now past forty, he was unlikely ever again to do any important creative work in mathematics. A man who is a good poet at forty may turn out to be a good poet at sixty; but he is more likely to have stopped writing poems, to be doing exercises in his own manner, or to have reverted to whatever commonplaces were popular when he was young. A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.
    • “Reflections on Wallace Stevens”, p. 134; conclusion
  • Many poets...write as if they had been decerebrated, and not simply lobotomized, as a cure for their melancholia.
    • “A Verse Chronicle”, p. 149
  • A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry is a standard Oscar Williams production... ...the book has the merit of containing a considerably larger selection of Oscar Williams’s poems than I have seen in any other anthology. There are nine of his poems — and five of Hardy’s. It takes a lot of courage to like your own poetry almost twice as well as Hardy’s.
    • “A Verse Chronicle”, pp. 157–158
  • 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.
    • “Her Shield”, p. 177
  • Butter not only wouldn’t melt in this mouth, it wouldn’t go in; one runs away, an urchin in the gutter and glad to be, murmuring: “The Queen of Spain has no legs.” ... One’s eyes widen; one sits the poet down in the porch swing, starts to go off to get her a glass of lemonade, and sees her metamorphosed before one’s eyes into a new Critique of Practical Reason.., feminine gender...
    • “Her Shield”, p. 178
  • Who would be such a fool as to make advances to his reader, advances which might end in rejection or, worse still, in acceptance?
    • “Her Shield”. p. 181
  • What Miss Moore’s best poetry does, I can say best in her words: it “comes into and steadies the soul,” so that the reader feels himself “a life prisoner, but reconciled.”
    • “Her Shield”, p. 187
  • It is odd how pleasant and sympathetic her poems are, in these days when many a poet had rather walk down children like Mr. Hyde than weep over them like Swinburne, and when many a poem is gruesome occupational therapy for a poet who stays legally innocuous by means of it.
    • “Poets”, pp. 212–213
  • The usual bad poem in somebody’s Collected Works is a learned, mannered, valued habit, a habit a little more careful than, and little emptier than, brushing one’s teeth.
    • “William Carlos Williams”, p. 216
  • If you never look just wrong to your contemporaries you will never look just right to posterity — every writer has to try to be, to some extent, sometimes, a law unto himself.
    • “Three Books”, p. 230
  • [Robert Lowell] is a poet of both Will and Imagination, but his Will is always seizing his Imagination by the shoulders and saying to it in a grating voice: “Don’t sit there fooling around; get to work!” — and his poor Imagination gets tense all over and begins to revolve determinedly and familiarly, like a squirrel in a squirrel-cage. Goethe talked about the half-somnambulistic state of the poet; but Mr. Lowell too often is either having a nightmare or else is wide awake gritting his teeth and working away at All The Things He Does Best. Cocteau said to poets: Learn what you can do and then don’t do it; and this is so—we do it enough without trying. As a poet Mr. Lowell sometimes doesn’t have enough trust in God and tries to do everything himself: he proposes and disposes — and this helps to give a certain monotony to his work.
    • “Three Books”, p. 236

Pictures from an Institution (1954) [novel][edit]

pagination according to the University of Chicago Press edition (1986)
  • Half the campus was designed by Bottom the Weaver, half by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe; Benton had been endowed with one to begin with, and had smiled and sweated and and spoken for the other. A visitor looked under black beams, through leaded casements (past apple boughs, past box, past chairs like bath-tubs on broomsticks) to a lawn ornamented with one of the statues of David Smith; in the months since the figure had been put in its place a shrike had deserted for it a neighboring thorn tree, and an archer had skinned her leg against its farthest spike. On the table in the President’s waiting-room there were copies of Town and Country, the Journal of the History of Ideas, and a small magazine—a little magazine—that had no name. One walked by a mahogany hat-rack, glanced at the coat of arms on an umbrella-stand, and brushed with one’s sleeve something that gave a ghostly tinkle—four or five black and orange ellipsoids, set on grey wires, trembled in the faint breeze of the air-conditioning unit: a mobile. A cloud passed over the sun, and there came trailing from the gymnasium, in maillots and blue jeans, a melancholy procession, four dancers helping to the infirmary a friend who had dislocated her shoulder in the final variation of The Eye of Anguish.
    • Chapter 1: “The President, Mrs., and Derek Robbins”, p. 3; opening paragraph of novel
  • How can we expect novelists to be moral, when their trade forces them to treat every end they meet as no more than an imperfect means to a novel?
    • Chapter 1, p. 8
  • She would have come from Paradise and complained to God that the apple wasn’t a winesap at all, but a great big pulpy Washington Delicious; and after the Ark she would have said that there had not been the animals, the spring rains, and the nice long ocean-voyage the prospectus from the travel agency had led her to expect—and that she had been most disappointed at not finding on Mount Ararat Prometheus.
    • Chapter 1, p. 9
  • Age could not wither nor custom stale her infinite monotony: in fact, neither Age nor Custom could do anything (as they said, their voices rising) with the American novelist Gertrude Johnson.
    • Chapter 1, p. 9
  • President Robbins was so well adjusted to his environment that sometimes you could not tell which was the environment and which was President Robbins.
    • Ch. 1, p. 11
  • Mrs. Robbins asked: “If I am not for myself, who then is for me?”—and she was for herself so passionately that the other people in the world decided that they were not going to let Pamela Robbins beat them at her own game, and stopped playing.
    • Chapter 1, p. 12
  • ...to Americans English manners are far more frightening than none at all...
    • Chapter 1, p. 12
  • Gertrude Johnson could feel no real respect for, no real interest in, anybody who wasn't a writer. For her there were two species: writers and people; and the writers were really people, and the people weren't.
    • Chapter 1, p. 22
  • ...and then President Robbins began to speak.
    After two sentences one realized once more that President Robbins was an extraordinary speaker, a speaker of a—one says an almost extinct school, but how does one say the opposite? a not-yet-evolved school? He did something so logical that it is impossibe that no one else should have thought of it, yet no one has. President Robbins crooned his speeches.
    His voice not only took you into his confidence, it laid a fire for you and put your slippers by it and then went into the other room to get into something more comfortable. It was a Compromising voice.
    • Chapter 1, p. 25
  • ...the really damned not only like Hell, they feel loyal to it...
    • Chapter 1, p. 28
  • We were given drinks, and drank them, and talked while we drank them. But talked, here, is a euphemism: we had that conversation about how you make a Martini. The people in Hell, Dr. Rosenbaum had told me once, say nothing but What? Americans in Hell tell each other how to make Martinis.
    • Chapter 2: “The Whittakers and Gertrude”, p. 40
  • The Southern past, the Southern present, the Southern future, concentrated into Gertrude's voice, became one of red clay pine-barrens, of chain-gang camps, of housewives dressed in flour sacks who stare all day dully down into dirty sinks.
    • Ch. 2, p. 66
  • People had always seemed to Gertrude rather like the beasts in Animal Farm: all equally detestable, but some more equally detestable than others...
    • Chapter 2, p. 68
  • A correct answer is like an affectionate kiss, Goethe said; a correct answer, Gertrude would have said, is like a slap in the face.
    • Chapter 2, p. 68
  • ...girls who had read Wittgenstein as high school baby-sitters were rejected because the school’s quota of abnormally intelligent students had already been filled that year.
    • Chapter 3: “Miss Batterson and Benton”, p. 80
  • Her point of view about student work was that of a social worker teaching finger-painting to children or the insane.
    I was impressed with how common such an attitude was at Benton: the faculty—insofar as they were real Benton faculty, and not just nomadic barbarians—reasoned with the students, “appreciated their point of view”, used Socratic methods on them, made allowances for them, kept looking into the oven to see if they were done; but there was one allowance they never under any circumstances made—that the students might be right about something, and they wrong. Education, to them, was a psychiatric process: the sign under which they conquered had embroidered at the bottom, in small letters, Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased?—and half of them gave it its Babu paraphrase of Can you wait upon a lunatic? One expected them to refer to former students as psychonanalysts do: “Oh, she’s an old analysand of mine.” They felt that the mind was a delicate plant which, carefully nurtured, judiciously left alone, must inevitably adopt for itself even the slightest of their own beliefs.
    One Benton student, a girl noted for her beadth of reading and absence of coöperation, described things in a queer, exaggerated, plausible way. According to her, a professor at an ordinary school tells you “what’s so”, you admit that it is on examination, and what you really believe or come to believe has “that obscurity which is the privilege of young things”. But at Benton, where education was as democratic as in “that book about America by that French writer—de, de—you know the one I mean”; she meant de Tocqueville; there at Benton they wanted you really to believe everything they did, especially if they hadn’t told you what it was. You gave them the facts, the opinions of authorities, what you hoped was their own opinion; but they replied, “That’s not the point. What do you yourself really believe?” If it wasn’t what your professors believed, you and they could go on searching for your real belief forever—unless you stumbled at last upon that primal scene which is, by definition, at the root of anything....
    When she said primal scene there was so much youth and knowledge in her face, so much of our first joy in created things, that I could not think of Benton for thinking of life. I suppose she was right: it is as hard to satisfy our elders’ demands of Independence as of Dependence. Harder: how much more complicated and indefinite a rationalization the first usually is!—and in both cases, it is their demands that must be satisfied, not our own. The faculty of Benton had for their students great expectations, and the students shook, sometimes gave, beneath the weight of them. If the intellectual demands were not so great as they might have been, the emotional demands made up for it. Many a girl, about to deliver to one of her teachers a final report on a year’s not-quite-completed project, had wanted to cry out like a child, “Whip me, whip me, Mother, just don’t be Reasonable!”
    • Chapter 3, pp. 81–83
  • Gertrude knew better than this, of course, but we all know better than we know better, or act as if we did.
    • Chapter 3, p. 100
  • He loved hitherto-unthought-of, thereafter-unthinkable combinations of instruments. When some extraordinary array of players filed half-proudly, half-sheepishly on to the stage, looking like the Bremen Town Musicians—if those were, as I think they were, a rooster, a cat, a dog, and a donkey—you could guess beforehand that it was to be one of Gottfried’s compositions. His Joyous Celebration of the Memory of the Master Johann Sebastian Bach had a tone-row composed of the notes B, A, C, and H (in the German notation), of these inverted, and of these transposed; and there were four movements, the first played on instruments beginning with the letter b, the second on instruments beginning with the letter a, and so on. After the magnificent group that ushered in the piece (bugle, bass-viol, bassoon, basset-horn, bombardon, bass-drum, baritone, and a violinist with only his bow) it was sad to see an Alp horn and an accordion come in to play the second movement. Gottfriend himself said about the first group: “Vot a bunch!” When I asked him how he had thought of it he said placidly: “De devil soldt me his soul.”
    • Chapter 4: “Constance and the Rosenbaums”, p. 136
  • Once, along with The Transfigured Night, he played a class Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead. Most of the class had not seen the painting, so he went to the library and returned with a reproduction of it. Then he pointed, with a sober smile, to a painting which hung on the wall of the classroom (A Representation of Several Areas, Some of Them Grey, one might have called it; yet this would have been unjust to it—it was non-representational) and played for the class, on the piano, a composition which he said was an interpretation of the painting: he played very slowly and very calmly, with his elbows, so that it sounded like blocks falling downstairs, but in slow motion. But half his class took this as seriously as they took everything else, and asked him for weeks afterward about prepared pianos, tone-clusters, and the compositions of John Cage and Henry Cowell; one girl finally brought him a lovely silk-screen reproduction of a painting by Jackson Pollock, and was just opening her mouth to—
    He interrupted, bewilderingly, by asking the Lord what land He had brought him into. The girl stared at him open-mouthed, and he at once said apologetically that he was only quoting Mahler, who had also diedt from America; then he gave her such a winning smile that she said to her roommate that night, forgivingly: “He really is a nice old guy. You never would know he’s famous.”
    “Is he really famous?” her roommate asked. “I never heard of him before I got here. ...”
    • Chapter 4, pp. 138–139
  • ...it is better to entertain an idea than to take it home to live with you for the rest of your life.
    • Ch. 4, p. 173
  • [IRENE ROSENBAUM:] ...“you Americans do not rear children, you incite them; you give them food and shelter and applause”...
    • Chapter 4, p. 180
  • She said to Constance, parodying a line of poetry that attracted her, "In the United States, there one feels free." But she spoiled it by continuing, "Except from the Americans—but every pearl has its oyster."
    • Ch. 4, p. 181
  • “My destiny is accomplished and I die content.” How often she made such quotations as these, said or felt or was them! For just as many Americans want art to be Life, so this American novelist wanted life to be Art, not seeing that many of the values—though not, perhaps, the final ones—of life and art are irreconcilable; so that her life looked coldly into the mirror that it held up to itself, and saw that it was full of quotations, of data and analysis and epigrams, of naked and shameful truths, of facts: it saw that it was a novel by Gertrude Johnson.
    • Chapter 5: “Gertrude and Sidney”, p. 214
  • If Benton had had an administration building with pillars it could have carved over the pillars: Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you guilty.
    • Chapter 5, p. 220
  • Miss Rasmussen made a welded sculpture. Her statues were—as she would say, smiling—untouched by human hands; and they looked it. You could tell one from another, if you wanted to, but it was hard to want to. You felt, yawning: It’s ugly, but is it Art?
    Miss Rasmussen also designed furniture, but people persisted in sitting down in her sculpture, and in asking “What is that named?” of her chairs. This showed how advanced her work was, and pleased her; yet when she laughed to show her pleasure, her laugh sounded thin and strained.
    • Chapter 6: “Art Night”, p. 228

The Woman at the Washington Zoo (1960)[edit]

  • Animals, these beings trapped
    As I am trapped but not, themselves, the trap,
    Aging, but without knowledge of their age,
    Kept safe here, knowing not of death, for death
    — Oh, bars of my own body, open, open!

    The world goes by my cage and never sees me.

    • "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," lines 14-19

A Sad Heart at the Supermarket: Essays & Fables (1962)[edit]

  • The Author to the Reader

I’ve read that Luther said (it’s come to me
So often that I’ve made it into meter):
And even if the world should end tomorrow
I still would plant my little apple-tree.

Here, reader, is my little apple-tree.

    • epigraph, p. vi
  • ...when General Eisenhower defined an intellectual as “a man who takes more words than is necessary to tell more than he knows”, he was speaking not as a Republican but as an American.
    • “The Intellectual in America”, p. 5
  • We are all—so to speak—intellectuals about something.
    • “The Intellectual in America”, p. 11
  • That most human and American of presidents—of Americans—Abraham Lincoln, said as a young man: “The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read.” It’s a hard heart, and a dull one, that doesn’t go out to that sentence. The man who will make us see what we haven’t seen, feel what we haven’t felt, understand what we haven’t understood—he is our best friend. And if he knows more than we do, that is an invitation to us, not an indictment of us. And it is not an indictment of him, either; it takes all sorts of people to make a world—to make, even, a United States of America.
    • “The Intellectual in America”, p. 15; conclusion
  • When we look at the age in which we live—no matter what age it happens to be—it is hard for us not to be depressed by it. The taste of the age is, always, a bitter one. “What kind of a time is this when one must envy the dead and buried!” said Goethe about his age; yet Matthew Arnold would have traded his own time for Goethe’s almost as willingly as he would have traded his own self for Goethe’s. How often, after a long day witnessing elementary education, School Inspector Arnold came home, sank into what I hope was a Morris chair, looked ’round him at the Age of Victoria, that Indian Summer of the Western World, and gave way to a wistful, exacting, articulate despair!
    Do people feel this way because our time is worse than Arnold’s, and Arnold’s than Goethe’s, and so on back to Paradise? Or because forbidden fruits—the fruits forbidden to us by time—are always the sweetest? Or because we can never compare our own age with an earlier age, but only with books about that age?
    We say that somebody doesn’t know what he is missing; Arnold, pretty plainly, didn’t know what he was having. The people who live in a Golden Age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks. Maybe we too are living in a Golden or, anyway, Gold-Plated Age, and the people of the future will look back at us and say ruefully: “We never had it so good.” And yet the thought that they will say this isn’t as reassuring as it might be. We can see that Goethe’s and Arnold’s ages weren’t as bad as Goethe and Arnold thought them: after all, they produced Goethe and Arnold. In the same way, our times may not be as bad as we think them: after all, they have produced us. Yet this too is a thought that isn’t as reassuring as it might be.
    • “The Taste of the Age”. pp. 16–17; opening
  • Our society, it turns out, can use modern art. A restaurant, today, will order a mural by Míro in as easy and matter-of-fact a spirit as, twenty-five years ago, it would have ordered one by Maxfield Parrish. The president of a paint factory goes home, sits down by his fireplace—it looks like a chromium aquarium set into the wall by a wall-safe company that has branched out into interior decorating, but there is a log burning in it, he calls it a firelace, let’s call it a fireplace too—the president sits down, folds his hands on his stomach, and stares at two paintings by Jackson Pollock that he has hung on the wall opposite him. He feels at home with them; in fact, as he looks at them he not only feels at home, he feels as if he were back at the paint factory. And his children—if he has any—his children cry for Calder. He uses thoroughly advanced, wholly non-representational artists to design murals, posters, institutional advertisements: if we have the patience (or are given the opportuity) to wait until the West has declined a little longer, we shall all see the advertisements of Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner, and Smith illustrated by Jean Dubuffet.
    This president’s minor executives may not be willing to hang a Kandinsky in the house, but they will wear one, if you make it into a sport shirt or a pair of swimming-trunks; and if you make it into a sofa, they will lie on it. They and their wives and children will sit on a porcupine, if you first exhibit it at the Museum of Modern Art and say that it is a chair. In fact, there is nothing, nothing in the whole world that someone won’t buy and sit in if you tell him it is a chair: the great new art form of our age, the one that will take anything we put in it, is the chair. If Hieronymus Bosch, if Christian Morgenstern, if the Marquis de Sade were living at this hour, what chairs they would be designing!
    • “The Taste of the Age”, pp. 19–20
  • Most people don’t listen to classical music at all, but to rock-and-roll or hillbilly songs or some album named Music To Listen To Music By...
    • “The Taste of the Age”, p. 12
  • The greatest American industry—why has no one ever said so?—is the industry of using words. We pay tens of millions of people to spend their lives lying to us, or telling us the truth, or supplying us with a nourishing medicinal compound of the two. All of us are living in the middle of a dark wood—a bright Technicolored forest—of words, words, words. It is a forest in which the wind is never still: there isn’t a tree in the forest that is not, for every moment of its life and our lives, persuading or ordering or seducing or overawing us into buying this, believing that, voting for the other.
    • “The Taste of the Age”, pp. 27–28
  • ...our quarrels with the world are like our quarrels with God: no matter how right we are, we are wrong.
    • “The Taste of the Age”, p. 40
  • 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.
    • “The Taste of the Age”, p. 42; conclusion
  • Critics disagree about almost every quality of a writer’s work; and when some agree about a quality, they disagree about whether it is to be praised or blamed, nurtured or rooted out. After enough criticism the writer is covered with lipstick and bruises, and the two are surprisingly evenly distributed.
    • “Poets, Critics, and Readers”, p. 99
  • The poet needs to be deluded about his poems—for who can be sure that it is delusion? In his strongest hours the public hardly exists for the writer; he does what he ought to do, has to do, and if afterwards some Public wishes to come and crown him with laurel crowns, well, let it! if critics wish to tell people all that he isn’t, well, let them—he knows what he is. But at night when he can’t get to sleep it seems to him that it is what he is, his own particular personal quality, that he is being disliked for. It is this that the future will like him for, if it likes him for anything; but will it like him for anything? The poet’s hope is in posterity, but it is a pale hope; and now that posterity itself has become a pale hope...
    • “Poets, Critics, and Readers”, p. 109
  • A few months ago I read an interview with a critic; a well-known critic; an unusually humane and intelligent critic. The interviewer had just said that the critic “sounded like a happy man”, and the interview was drawing to a close; the critic said, ending it all: “I read, but I don’t get any time to read at whim. All the reading I do is in order to write or teach, and I resent it. We have no TV, and I don’t listen to the radio or records, or go to art galleries or the theater. I’m a completely negative personality.”
    As I thought of that busy, artless life—no records, no paintings, no plays, no books except those you lecture on or write articles about—I was so depressed that I went back over the interview looking for some bright spot, and I found it, one beautiful sentence: for a moment I had left the gray, dutiful world of the professional critic, and was back in the sunlight and shadow, the unconsidered joys, the unreasoned sorrows, of ordinary readers and writers, amateurishly reading and writing “at whim”. The critic said that once a year he read Kim, it was plain, at whim: not to teach, not to criticize, just for love—he read it, as Kipling wrote it, just because he liked to, wanted to, couldn’t help himself. To him it wasn’t a means to a lecture or an article, it was an end; he read it not for anything he could get out of it, but for itself. And isn’t this what the work of art demands of us? The work of art, Rilke said, says to us always: You must change your life. It demands of us that we too see things as ends, not as means—that we too know them and love them for their own sake. This change is beyond us, perhaps, during the active, greedy, and powerful hours of our lives, but during the contemplative and sympathetic hours of our reading, our listening, our looking, it is surely within our power, if we choose to make it so, if we choose to let one part of our nature follow its natural desires. So I say to you, for a closing sentence: Read at whim! read at whim!
    • “Poets, Critics, and Readers”, pp. 112–113
  • 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.
    • “On Preparing to Read Kipling”, pp. 116–117
  • We always tend to distrust geniuses about genius, as if what they say didn’t arouse much empathy in us, or as if we were waiting till some more reliable source of information came along...
    • “On Preparing to Read Kipling”, p. 125
  • ...in this world, often, there is nothing to praise but no one to blame...
    • “On Preparing to Read Kipling”, p. 135
  • If wishes were stories, beggars would read...
    • “Stories”, p. 141
  • Reality is what we want it to be or what we do not want it to be, but it is not our wanting or our not wanting that makes it so.
    • “Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg”, p. 191
  • When we read what Goethe says about men we are ashamed of what we have said; when we read what he says about painting and statues we are ashamed of what Goethe has said.
    • “Malraux and the Statues at Bamberg”, p. 194

The Bat-Poet (1964)[edit]

  • A bat is born
    Naked and blind and pale.
    His mother makes a pocket of her tail
    And catches him. He clings to her long fur
    By his thumbs and toes and teeth.
    And then the mother dances through the night
    Doubling and looping, soaring, somersaulting —
    Her baby hangs on underneath.
    • "A bat is born," lines 1-31; reprinted as "Bats" in The Lost World (1965)

The Lost World (1965)[edit]

  • Be, as you have been, my happiness;
    Let me sleep beside you, each night, like a spoon.
    • "Woman," lines 170-171


  • The new masters paint a subject as they please,
    And Veronese is prosecuted by the Inquisition
    For the dogs playing at the feet of Christ,
    The earth is a planet among galaxies.
    Later Christ disappears, the dogs disappear: in abstract
    Understanding, without adoration, the last master puts
    Colors on canvas, a picture of the universe
    In which a bright spot somewhere in the corner
    Is the small radioactive planet men called Earth.
    • "The Old and the New Masters," lines 53-61


  • A farmer is separated from a farmer
    By what farmers have in common: forests,
    Those dark things — what the fields were to begin with.
    At night a fox comes out of the forest, eats his chickens.
    At night the deer come out of the forest, eat his crops.
    • "Field and Forest," lines 11-15


  • At night there are no more farmers, no more farms.
    At night the fields dream, the fields are the forest.
    The boy stands looking at the fox
    As if, if he looked long enough — he looks at it.
    Or is it the fox is looking at the boy?
    The trees can't tell the two of them apart.
    • "Field and Forest," lines 45-50


  • You give me the feeling that the universe
    Was made by something more than human
    For something less than human.
    But I identify myself, as always,
    With something that there's something wrong with,
    With something human.
    • "The One Who Was Different"

The Third Book of Criticism (1969)[edit]

  • A man on a park bench has a lonely final look, as if to say: “Reduce humanity to its ultimate particles and you end here; beyond this single separate being you cannot go.” But if you look back into his life you cannot help seeing that he is separated off, not separate—is a later, singular stage of an earlier plural being. All the tongues of men were baby talk to begin with: go back far enough and which of us knew where he ended and Mother and Father and Brother and Sister began? The singular subject in its objective universe has evolved from that orginal composite entity—half subjective, half objective, having its own ways and laws and language, its own life and its own death—the family.
    • “An Unread Book”, p. 3; opening
  • ...we are willing to admit the normality of the abnormal—are willing to admit that we never understood the normal better than when it has been allowed to reach its full growth and become the abnormal.
    • “An Unread Book”, p. 5
  • It is ugly ducklings, grown either into swans or into remarkably big, remarkably ugly ducks, who are responsible for most works of art; and yet how few of these give a truthful account of what it was like to be an ugly duckling!—it is almost as if the grown, successful swan had repressed most of the memories of the duckling’s miserable, embarrassing, magical beginnings. (The memories are deeply humiliating in two ways: they remind the adult that he was once more ignorant and gullible and emotional than he is; and they remind him that he once was, potentially, far more than he is.)
    • “An Unread Book”, p. 19
  • The usual criticism of a novel about an artist is that, no matter how real he is as a man, he is not real to us as an artist, since we have to take on trust the works of art he produces.
    • “An Unread Book”, p. 20
  • It is rare for a novel to have an ending as good as its middle and beginning...
    • “An Unread Book”, p. 25
  • One of the most obvious facts about grown-ups, to a child, is that they have forgotten what it is like to be a child. The child has not yet had the chance to know what it is like to be a grownup; he believes, even, that being a grownup is a mistake he will never make—when he grows up he will keep on being a child, a big child with power. So the child and grownup live in mutual love, misunderstanding, and distaste. Children shout and play and cry and want candy; grownups say Ssh! and work and scold and want steak. There is no disputing tastes as contradictory as these. It is not just Mowgli who was raised by a couple of wolves; any child is raised by a couple of grownups. Father and Mother may be nearer and dearer than anyone will ever be again—still, they are members of a different species. God is, I suppose, what our parents were; certainly the ogre of the stories is so huge, so powerful, and so stupid because that is the way a grownup looks to a child.
    Grownups forget or cannot believe that they seem even more unreasonable to children than children seem to them.
    • “An Unread Book’, pp. 51–52
  • ...a [literary] style can be a whole way of existing, so that you exist, for the moment, in perfect sympathy with it: you don’t read it so much as listen to it as it sweeps you along—fast enough, often, to make you feel a blurred pleasure in your own speed. Often a phrase or sentence has the uncaring unconscious authority—how else could you say it?—that only a real style has.
    • “An Unread Book”, p. 36
  • ...habits are happiness of a sort...
    • “An Unread Book”, p. 39
  • Kenneth Burke calls form the satisfaction of an expectation; The Man Who Loved Children is full of such satisfactions, but it has a good deal of the deliberate disappointment of an expectation that is also form.
    • “An Unread Book”, p. 40
  • A person is a process, one that leads to death...
    • “An Unread Book”, p. 40
  • Sam is a repetitive, comic process that merely marks time: he gets nowhere, but then he doesn’t want to get anywhere. Although there is no possibility of any real change in Sam, he never stops changing: Sam stays there inside Sam, getting less and less like the rest of mankind and more and more like Sam, Sam squared, Sam cubed, Sam to the nth.
    • “An Unread Book”, p. 40
  • Christina Stead has a Chinese say, “Our old age is perhaps life’s decision about us”—or, worse, the decision we have made about ourselves without ever realizing we were making it.
    • “An Unread Book”, p. 42
  • One of the most puzzling things about a novel is that “the way it really was” half the time is, and half the time isn’t, the way it ought to be in the novel.
    • “An Unread Book”, p. 46
  • 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.
    • “An Unread Book”, p. 47
  • When we think of the masterpieces that nobody praised and nobody read, back there in the past, we feel an impatient superiority to the readers of the past. If we had been there, we can’t help feeling, we’d have known that Moby-Dick was a good book—why, how could anyone help knowing?
    But suppose someone says to us, “Well, you’re here now: what’s our own Moby-Dick? What’s the book that, a hundred years from now, everybody will look down on us for not having liked?” What do we say then?
    • “An Unread Book”, pp. 49–50
  • Lending a favorite book has its risks; the borrower may not like it. I still don’t know a better novel than Crime and Punishment—still, every fourth or fifth borrower returns it unfinished: it depresses him; besides that, he didn’t believe it. More borrowers than this return the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past unfinished: they were bored. There is no book you can lend people that all of them will like.
    • “An Unread Book”, p. 50
  • ...a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it...
    • “An Unread Book”, p. 50
  • Few poets have made a more interesting rhetoric out of just fooling around: turning things upside down, looking at them from under the sofa, considering them (and their observer) curiously enough to make the reader protest, “That were to consider it too curiously.”
    • The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens”, p. 64
  • Stevens’s poetry makes one understand how valuable it can be for a poet to write a great deal. Not too much of that great deal, ever, is good poetry; but out of quantity can come practice, naturalness, accustomed mastery, adaptations and elaborations and reversals of old ways, new ways, even—so that the poet can put into the poems, at the end of a lifetime, what the end of a lifetime brings him. Stevens has learned to write at will, for pleasure; his methods of writing, his ways of imagining, have made this possible for him as it is impossible for many living poets—Eliot, for instance. Anything can be looked at, felt about, meditated upon, so Stevens can write about anything; he does not demand of his poems the greatest concentration, intensity, dramatic immediacy, the shattering and inexplicable rightness the poet calls inspiration.
    • The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens”, p. 65
  • ...Stevens does not think of inspiration (or whatever you want to call it) as a condition of composition. He too is waiting for the spark from heaven to fall—poets have no choice about this—but he waits writing; and this—other things being equal, when it’s possible, if it’s possible—is the best way for a poet to wait.
    • The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens”, p. 66
  • ...just as great men are great disasters, overwhelmingly good poets are overwhelmingly bad influences.
    • The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens”, p. 66
  • A great revolution is hardest of all on the great revolutionists.
    • “The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens”, p. 67
  • A few weeks ago I read, in Sacheverell Sitwell, two impressives sentences: “It is my belief that I have informed myself of nearly all works of art in the known world.... I have heard most of the music of the world, and seen nearly all the paintings.” It was hard for me to believe these sentences, but I wanted Sitwell to be able to say them, liked him for having said them—I believed.
    • “The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens”, p. 71
  • We never step twice into the same Auden.—HERACLITUS
    • “Changes of Attitude and Rhetoric in Auden’s Poetry”, p. 115; epigraph
  • Auden is able to set up a We (whom he identifies himself with—rejection loves company) in opposition to the enemy They...
    • “Changes of Attitude and Rhetoric in Auden’s Poetry”, p. 116
  • Such cultural homosexuality is an alienation more or less forced upon certain groups of Auden’s society by the form of their education and the nature of their social and financial conditions. Where the members of a class and a sex are taught, in a prolonged narcissistic isolation, to hero-worship themselves—class and sex; where—to a different class—unemployment is normal, where one’s pay is inadequate or impossible for more than one; where children are expensive liabilities instead of assets; where women are business competitors; where most social relationships have become as abstract, individualistic, and mobile as the relations of the labor market, homosexuality is a welcome asset to the state, one of the cheapest and least dangerous forms of revolution.
    • “Changes of Attitude and Rhetoric in Auden’s Poetry”, pp. 127–128
  • 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.
    • “Changes of Attitude and Rhetoric in Auden’s Poetry”, p. 131
  • The best of causes ruins as quickly as the worst; and the road to Limbo is paved with writers who have done everything—I am being sympathetic, not satiric—for the very best reasons.
    • “Changes of Attitude and Rhetoric in Auden’s Poetry”, p. 149
  • ...modern poetry is necessarily obscure; if the reader can’t get it, let him eat Browning...
    • “Changes of Attitude and Rhetoric in Auden’s Poetry”, p. 149
  • The weight and concentration of the poems fall upon things (and those great things, animals and people), in their tough, laconic, un-get-pastable plainness: they have kept the stolid and dangerous inertia of the objects of the sagas—the sword that snaps, the man looking at his lopped-off leg and saying, “That was a good stroke.”
    • “Freud to Paul: The Stages of Auden’s Ideology”, p. 155
  • In Stage II guilt is first of all social, liberal, moral guilt—a guilt so general as to seem almost formal. It is we who are responsible, either by commission or—more generally—by omission, for everything from killing off the Tasmanians to burning the books at Alexandria. (You didn’t do it? Then you should have stopped them from doing it. You never heard of it? Ignorant as well as evil, eh? You weren’t born? You’re guilty, I tell you—guilty.)
    • “Freud to Paul: The Stages of Auden’s Ideology”, p. 169
  • What we are most anxious about is our anxiety itself: the greatest of all sins, Auden learns from Kafka, is impatience—and he decides that the hero “is, in fact, one who is not anxious.” But it was inevitable that Auden should arrive at this point. His anxiety is fundamental; and the one thing that anxiety cannot do is to accept itself, to do nothing about itself—consequently it admires more than anything else in the world doing nothing, sitting still, waiting.
    • “Freud to Paul: The Stages of Auden’s Ideology”, p. 180
  • 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.
    • “Fifty Years of American Poetry”, p. 299
  • Many a writer has spent his life putting his favorite words in all the places they belong; but how many, like [E.E.] Cummings, have spent their lives putting their favorite words in all the places they don’t belong, thus discovering many effects that no one had even realized were possible?
    • “Fifty Years of American Poetry”, p. 320
  • The round-square may be impossible, but we believe in it because it is impossible. [E.E.] Cummings is a very great expert in all these, so to speak, illegal syntactical devices: his misuse of parts of speech, his use of negative prefixes, his word-coining, his systematic relation of words that grammar and syntax don’t permit us to relate—all this makes him a magical bootlegger or moonshiner of language, one who intoxicates us on a clear liquor no government has legalized with its stamp.
    • “Fifty Years of American Poetry”, p. 321
  • The motto of his [Robinson Jeffers’s] work is “More! More!”—but as Tolstoy says, “A wee bit omitted, overemphasized, or exaggerated in poetry, and there is no contagion”; and Frost, bearing him out, says magnificently: “A very little of anything goes a long way in a work of art.”
    • “Fifty Years of American Poetry”, pp. 322–323
  • ...if sometimes we are bogged down in lines full of “corybulous”, “hypogeum”, “plangent”, “irrefragably”, “glozening”, “tellurian”, “conclamant”, sometimes we are caught up in the soaring rapture of something unprecedented, absolutely individual.
    • of Hart Crane’s The Bridge, “Fifty Years of American Poetry”, p. 324
  • ...good American poets are surprisingly individual and independent; they have little of the member-of-the-Academy, official man-of-letters feel that English or continental poets often have. When American poets join literary political parties, doctrinaire groups with immutable principles, whose poems themselves are manifestoes, the poets are ruined by it. We see this in the beatniks, with their official theory that you write a poem by putting down anything that happens to come into your head; this iron spontaneity of theirs makes it impossible for even a talented beatnik to write a good poem except by accident, since it eliminates the selection, exclusion, and concentration that are an essential part of writing a poem. Besides, their poems are as direct as true works of art are indirect: ironically, these conscious social manifestoes of theirs, these bohemian public speeches, make it impossible for the artist’s unconscious to operate as it normally does in the process of producing a work of art.
    • “Fifty Years of American Poetry”, pp. 327–328
  • One thinks with awe and longing of this real and extraordinary popularity of hers [Edna St. Vincent Millay’s]: if there were some poet—Frost, Stevens, Eliot—whom people still read in canoes!
    • “Fifty Years of American Poetry”, p. 329
  • 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.
    • “Fifty Years of American Poetry”, p. 331
  • 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.
    • “Fifty Years of American Poetry”, pp. 332–333

Kipling, Auden & Co: Essays and Reviews 1935-1964 (1980)[edit]

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981, ISBN 0-374-51668-5

  • We live in an age which eschews sentimentality as if it were a good deal more than the devil. (Actually, of course, a writer may be just as sentimental in laying undue emphasis on sexual crimes as on dying mothers: sentimental, like scientific, is an adjective that relates to method, not to matter.)
    • "Ten Books," The Southern Review (Autumn 1935) [p. 8]
  • The writer does not get from his work as he writes and reads it the same aesthetic shock that the reader does; and since the writer is so accustomed to reading other stories, and having them produce a decided effect upon him, he is disquieted at not being equally affected by his own.
    • "Ten Books," The Southern Review (Autumn 1935) [p. 8]
  • An author frequently chooses solemn or overwhelming subjects to write about; he is so impressed at writing about Life and Death that he does not notice that he is saying nothing of the slightest importance about either.
    • "Ten Books," The Southern Review (Autumn 1935) [p. 9]
  • [Alexander North] Whitehead is supposed to have said of [Bertrand] Russell: “Bertie thinks me muddleheaded and I think Bertie simple-minded.”
    • “The Morality of Mr. Winters”, p. 18
  • A poem is sort of an onion of contexts, and you can no more locate any of the important meanings exclusively in a part than you can locate a relation in one of its terms. The significance of a part may be greatly modified or even in extreme cases completely reversed by later and larger parts and by the whole.
    • “Texts from Housman”, p. 21
  • Once man was tossed about helplessly and incessantly by the wind that blew through him—now the toughest of all plants is more sensitive, more easily moved than he. In other words, death is better than life, nothing is better than anything. Nor is this a silly adolescent pessimism peculiar to Housman, as so many critics assure you. It is better to be dead than alive, best of all never to have been born—said a poet approvingly advertised as seeing life steadily and seeing it whole; and if I began an anthology of such quotations there it would take me a long time to finish. The attitude is obviously inadequate and just as obviously important.
    • “Texts from Housman”, p. 27
  • ...“progress”, in poetry at least, comes not so much from digesting the last age as from rejecting it altogether (or, rather, from eating a little and leaving a lot), and...the world’s dialectic is a sort of neo-Hegelian one in which one progresses not by resolving contradictions but by ignoring them.
    • “From That Island”, p. 30
  • ...one straggles gracelessly through a wilderness of common sense. It is an experience for which the reader of modern criticism is unprepared: in that jungle through which one wanders, with its misshapen and extravagant and cannibalistic growths, bent double with fruit and tentacles, disquieting with their rank eccentric life, one comes surprisingly on something so palely healthy: a decorous plant, without thorns or flowers, rootless in the thin sand of the drawing room.
    • of Modern Poetry: A Personal Essay by Louis MacNiece, “From That Island”, pp. 31–32
  • [Kenneth Patchen] has a real, but disorganized, self-indulgent, but rather commonplace talent.
    This is not Mr. Patchen’s opinion of himself. (Nor is it that of William Carlos Williams, who almost invents a new language, a kind of system of emotional nonsense syllables, in his effort to praise Mr. Patchen properly. For instance, Mr. Patchen is “a hawk on the grave of John Donne.” I should have called him a parrot on the stones of half a cemetery.)
    • “Poetry in a Dry Season”, p. 35
  • If poetry were nothing but texture, [Dylan] Thomas would be as good as any poet alive. The what of his poems is hardly essential to their success, and the best and most brilliantly written pieces usually say less than the worst.
    • “Poetry in a Dry Season”, p. 36
  • [W.H.] Auden has gone in the right direction, and a great deal too far.
    • “Poetry in a Dry Season”, p. 36
  • The characteristic poetic strategy of our time—refine your singularities—is something Auden has not learned; so his best poems are very peculiarly good, nearly the most interesting poems of our time. When he writes badly, we can afford to be angry at him, and he can afford to laugh at us.
    • “Poetry in a Dry Season”, p. 37
  • Early in his life Mr. [Ezra] Pound met with strong, continued, and unintelligent opposition. If people keep opposing you when you are right, you think them fools; and after a time, right or wrong, you think them fools simply because they oppose you. Similarly, you write true things or good things, and end by thinking things true or good simply because you write them
    • “Poets: Old, New, and Aging”, p. 44
  • ...I simply don’t want the poems mixed up with my life or opinions or picture or any other regrettable concomitants. I look like a bear and live in a cave; but you should worry.
    • of not wanting to write a preface for his first volume of verse, The Rage for the Lost Penny (1940); “A Note on Poetry”, p. 47
  • “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?
    • transition [sic] was the avant-garde English-language magazine published in Paris 1927–1938; “A Note on Poetry”, p. 48
  • Consider some of the qualities of typical modernistic poetry: very interesting language, a great emphasis on connotation, "texture"; extreme intensity, forced emotion — violence; a good deal of obscurity; emphasis on sensation, perceptual nuances; emphasis on details, on the part rather than on the whole; experimental or novel qualities of some sort; a tendency toward external formlessness and internal disorganization — these are justified, generally, as the disorganization required to express a disorganized age, or, alternatively, as newly discovered and more complex types of organization; an extremely personal style — refine your singularities; lack of restraint — all tendencies are forced to their limits; there is a good deal of emphasis on the unconscious, dream structure, the thoroughly subjective; the poet's attitudes are usually anti-scientific, anti-common-sense, anti-public — he is, essentially, removed; poetry is primarily lyric, intensive — the few long poems are aggregations of lyric details; poems usually have, not a logical, but the more or less associational style of dramatic monologue; and so on and so on. This complex of qualities is essentially romantic; and the poetry that exhibits it represents the culminating point of romanticism.
    • "A Note on Poetry," preface to The Rage for the Lost Penny: Five Young American Poets (New Directions, 1940) [p. 49]
  • 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.
    • “A Note on Poetry”, p. 50
  • The poets of the last generation were extremely erudite, but their erudition was of the rather specialized type that passed as currency of the realm in a somewhat literary realm. About Darwin, Marx, Freud and Co., about all characteristically “scientific” or “modern” thinkers most of them concluded regretfully: “If they had not existed, it would not have been necessary to ignore them.” (Or deplore them.)
    • “New Year Letter”, p. 56
  • In Heaven all reviews will be favorable; here on earth, the publisher realizes, plausibility demands an occasional bad one, some convincing lump in all that leaven, and he accepts it somewhat as a theologian accepts Evil.
    • “Contemporary Poetry Criticism”, p. 59
  • Carl Becker has defined a professor as a man who thinks otherwise; a scholar is a man who otherwise thinks.
    • “Contemporary Poetry Criticism”, p. 61
  • Our universities should produce good criticism; they do not—or, at best, they do so only as federal prisons produce counterfeit money: a few hardened prisoners are more or less surreptitiously continuing their real vocations.
    • “Contemporary Poetry Criticism”, p. 62
  • ...the work of a poet who has a real talent, but not for words.
    • of The Listening Landscape by Marya Zaturenska; “Town Mouse, Country Mouse”, p. 69
  • Marx said that he had stood Hegel on his head; often Mr. [Horace] Gregory has simply stood Pollyana on her head.
    • “Town Mouse, Country Mouse”, p. 70
  • 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.
    • “Town Mouse, Country Mouse”, p. 70
  • ...“originality” is everyone’s aim, and novel techniques are as much prized as new scientific discoveries. [T.S.] Eliot states it with surprising naïveté: “It is exactly as wasteful for a poet to do what has been done already as for a biologist to rediscover Mendel’s discoveries.”
    • of modernism; “The End of the Line”, pp. 79–80
  • Individualism, isolation, alienation. The poet is not only different from society, he is as different as possible from other poets; all this differentness is exploited to the limit—is used as subject matter, even. Each poet develops an elaborate, “personalized”, bureaucratized machinery of effect; refine your singularities is everybody’s maxim.
    • of modernism; “The End of the Line”, p. 81
  • New Directions is a reviewer’s nightmare; it’s enough punishment to read it all, without writing about it too.
    • In All Directions”, p. 87
  • 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.”
    • “The Development of Yeats’s Sense of Reality”, p. 89
  • Compare the saint who, asked what he would do if he had only an hour to live, replied that he would go on with his game of chess, since it was as much worship as anything else he had ever done.
    • “These Are Not Psalms”, p. 124
  • ...most of the people in a war never fight for even a minute—though they bear for years and die forever. They do not fight, but only starve, only suffer, only die: the sum of all this passive misery is that great activity, War.
    • “Poetry in War and Peace”, p. 129
  • Since Pharaoh’s bits were pushed into the jaws of kings, these dyings—patient or impatient, but dyings—have happened, by the hundreds of millions; they were all wasted. They taught us to kill others and to die ourselves, but never how to live. Who is “taught to live” by cruelty, suffering, stupidity, and that occupational disease of soldiers, death?
    • “Poetry in War and Peace”, p. 129
  • The real war poets are always war poets, peace or any time.
    • "Poetry in War and Peace," Partisan Review (Winter 1945) [p. 129]
  • A good religious poem, today, is ambergris, and it is hard to enjoy it for thinking of all those suffering whales; but martyrs are born, not made.
    • "Poetry in War and Peace," Partisan Review (Winter 1945) [p. 133]
  • Oscar Williams’s new book is pleasanter and a little quieter than his old, which gave the impression of having been written on a typewriter by a typewriter.
    • precedes by twelve years Truman Capote’s putdown of Jack Kerouac: “That isn’t writing at all, it’s typing.”; “from Verse Chronicle”, p. 137
  • This sort of admission of error, of change, makes us trust a critic as nothing else but omniscience could...
    • “B.H. Haggin”, p. 156
  • 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.
    • “Poetry, Unlimited”, p. 159
  • What to leave out is the first thing the artist has to decide; a painter who “held the mirror up to nature” would spend his life on the leaves of one landscape. The work of art’s fluctuating and idiosyncratic threshold of attention—the great things disregarded, the small things seized and dwelt on—is as much of a signature as anything in it.
    • “The Profession of Poetry”, p. 162
  • ...there is in this world no line so bad that someone won’t someday copy it.
    • “The Profession of Poetry”, p. 165
  • We know from many experiences that this is what the work of art does: its life — in which we have shared the alien existences both of this world and of that different world to which the work of art alone gives us access — unwillingly accuses our lives.
    • "The Profession of Poetry," Partisan Review (September/October 1950) [p. 166]
  • One is forced to remember how far from "self-expression" great poems are — what a strange compromise between the demands of the self, the world, and Poetry they actually represent.
    • "The Profession of Poetry," Partisan Review (September/October 1950) [p. 168]
  • It is better to have the child in the chimney corner moved by what happens in the poem, in spite of his ignorance of its real meaning, than to have the poem a puzzle to which that meaning is the only key. Still, complicated subjects make complicated poems, and some of the best poems can move only the best readers; this is one more question of curves of normal distribution. I have tried to make my poems plain, and most of them are plain enough; but I wish that they were more difficult because I had known more.
    • "Answers to Questions," from Mid-Century American Poets, edited by John Ciardi, 1950 [p. 170]
  • A successful poem says what a poet wants to say, and more, with particular finality. The remarks he makes about his poems are incidental when the poem is good, or embarrassing or absurd when it is bad — and he is not permitted to say how the good poem is good, and may never know how the bad poem is bad. It is better to write about other people's poetry.
    • "Answers to Questions," from Mid-Century American Poets, edited by John Ciardi, 1950 [p. 171]
  • Most of us know, now, that Rousseau was wrong: that man, when you knock his chains off, sets up the death camps. Soon we shall know everything the eighteenth century didn't know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us.
    • "On the Underside of the Stone," The New York Times Book Review (1953-08-23) [p. 177]
  • ...man is the animal that moralizes. Man is also the animal that complains about being one, and says that there is an animal, a beast inside him—that he is brother to dragons. (He is certainly a brother to wolves, and to pandas too, but he is father to dragons, not brother: they, like many gods and devils, are inventions of his.)
    • “On the Underside of the Stone”, p. 177
  • Malraux writes in a language in which there is no way to say "perhaps" or "I don't know," so that after a while we grow accustomed to saying it for him.
    • "Malraux and the Statues at Baumberg," Art News (December 1953) [p. 180]
  • Most works of art are, necessarily, bad...; one suffers through the many for the few.
    • “The Little Cars”, p. 200
  • Let’s say this together: “Great me no greats”, and leave this grading to posterity.
    • “A Poet’s Own Way”, p. 202
  • ...we like somebody who succeeds with such bad conscience, and who seems to wish that he had the nerve to be a failure or, better still, something to which the terms success and failure don’t apply—as when Mallory said, about Everest: “Success is meaningless here.”
    • “ ‘Very Graceful Are the Uses of Culture’ ”, p. 206
  • 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.
    • “ ‘Very Graceful Are the Uses of Culture’ ”, p. 211
  • I have trouble knowing what to do at parties. Prisoners tame mice, or make rings out of spoons: I analyze people’s handwriting...or else ask you to tell me what you read when you were a child. (People speak unusually well of the books of their childhood, don’t they? Or is this one more life-giving illusion?) I love to see a hard eye grow soft over Little Women... And, I’ve found, there’s no children’s book so bad that I mind your having liked it: about the tastes of dead children there is no disputing.
    • “Speaking of Books”, p. 219
  • But there is a Pope in the breast of each of us whom is hard to silence. Long ago a lady said to me, when I asked her the composers she liked: “Dvorak.” I said before I could stop myself: “Dvorak!” How many times, and with what shame, I’ve remembered it. And now I like Dvorak...
    • “Speaking of Books”, p. 220
  • Everybody must have wished at some time that poetry were written by nice ordinary people instead of poets—and, in a better world, it may be; but in this world writers like Constance Carrier are the well oysters that don’t have the pearls.
    • “Recent Poetry”, p. 225
  • A culture is no better than its woods,” Auden writes. Fortunately for him, a book of poetry can be better than its poems. Two-thirds of The Shield of Achilles is non-Euclidean needlepoint, a man sitting on a chaise longue juggling four cups, four saucers, four sugar lumps, and the round-square: this is what great and good poets do when they don’t even bother to write great and good poems, now that they’ve learned that—it’s Auden’s leitmotif, these days—art is essentially frivolous. But a little of the time Auden is essentially serious, and the rest of the time he’s so witty, intelligent, and individual, so angelically skillful, that one reads with despairing enthusiasm, and enjoys Auden’s most complacently self-indulgent idiosyncrasy almost as one enjoys Sherlock Holmes’s writing Victoria Rex on the wall in bullet holes.
  • “Recent Poetry”, p. 226
  • ...whether they write poems or don’t write poems, poets are best.
    • “Recent Poetry”, p. 227
  • Many young poets, nowadays, are insured against everything. For them poetry is a game like court tennis or squash racquets — one they learned at college — and they play it with propriety, as part of their social and academic existence; their poems are occasional verse for which life itself is only one more occasion.
    • "Recent Poetry," The Yale Review (Autumn 1955) [p. 231]
  • 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."
    • "Recent Poetry," The Yale Review (Autumn 1955) [p. 237]
  • If you look at the world with parted lips and a pure heart, and will the good, won't that make a true and beautiful poem? One's heart tells one that it will; and one's heart is wrong. There is no direct road to Parnassus.
    • "Recent Poetry," The Yale Review (Autumn 1955) [p. 237]
  • When you call people we you find it easy to be unfair to them, since you yourself are included in the condemnation.
    • "Five Poets," The Yale Review (Autumn 1956) [p. 263]
  • The people who live in a Golden Age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks.
    • "The Taste of the Age," The Saturday Evening Post (1958-07-26) [p. 290]
  • If we judge by wealth and power, our times are the best of times; if the times have made us willing to judge by wealth and power, they are the worst of times.
    • "The Taste of the Age," The Saturday Evening Post (1958-07-26) [p. 290]
  • ...a poem is, so to speak, a way of making you forget how you wrote it...
    • "The Woman at the Washington Zoo," [an essay about the writing of the poem by that name] from Understanding Poetry, third edition, ed. Cleanth Brooks (1960) [p. 319]
  • You often feel about something in Shakespeare or Dostoevsky that nobody ever said such a thing, but it's just the sort of thing people would say if they could — is more real, in some sense, than what people do say. If you have given your imagination free rein, let things go as far as they want to go, the world they made for themselves while you watched can have, for you and later watchers, a spontaneous finality.
    • "On Preparing to Read Kipling," introduction to The Best Short Stories of Rudyard Kipling (1961) [p. 335]

No Other Book: Selected Essays (1999)[edit]

edited by Brad Leithauser

  • 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 Statrue of Liberty, is an equal mark of that want of imagination, that inaccessibily to experience, of which each of us who dies a natural death will die.
    • “The Obscurity of the Poet”, p. 9
  • ...how poet and public stared at each other with righteous indignation, till the poet said, “Since you won’t read me, I’ll make sure you can’t”—is one of the most complicated and interesting of stories.
    • "The Obscurity of the Poet". p. 9
  • 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.”
    • "The Obscurity of the Poet", p. 13
  • 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.
    • "The Obscurity of the Poet", p. 13
  • Art matters not merely because it is the most magnificent ornament and the most nearly unfailing occupation of our lives, but because it is life itself.
    • "The Obscurity of the Poet", p. 15
  • Human life without some form of poetry is not human life but animal existence.
    • "The Obscurity of the Poet", p. 16
  • People always ask: For whom does the poet write? He needs only to answer, For whom do you do good? Are you kind to your daughter because in the end someone will pay you for being?... The poet writes his poem for its own sake, for the sake of that order of things in which the poem takes the place that has awaited it.
    • "The Obscurity of the Poet", p. 18
  • [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.
    • “To the Laodiceans”, p. 21
  • In Heaven all reviews will be favorable; here on earth, the publisher realizes, plausibility demands an occasional bad one, some convincing lump in all that leaven, and he accepts it somewhat as a theologian accepts Evil.
    • “Contemporary Poetry Criticism”, p. 140
  • Carl Becker has defined a professor as a man who thinks otherwise; a scholar is a man who otherwise thinks.
    • “Contemporary Poetry Criticism”, p. 142
  • Our universities should produce good criticism; they do not—or, at best, they do so only as federal prisons produce counterfeit money: a few hardened prisoners are more or less surreptitiously continuing their real vocations.
    • “Contemporary Poetry Criticism”, p. 143
  • Critics disagree about almost every quality of a writer’s work; and when some agree about a quality, they disagree about whether it is to be praised or blamed, nurtured or rooted out. After enough criticism the writer is covered with lipstick and bruises, and the two are surprisingly evenly distributed.
    • “Poets, Critics, and Readers”, p. 221
  • The poet needs to be deluded about his poems—for who can be sure that it is delusion? In his strongest hours the public hardly exists for the writer; he does what he ought to do, has to do, and if afterwards some Public wishes to come and crown him with laurel crowns, well, let it! if critics wish to tell people all that he isn’t, well, let them—he knows what he is. But at night when he can’t get to sleep it seems to him that it is what he is, his own particular personal quality, that he is being disliked for. It is this that the future will like him for, if it likes him for anything; but will it like him for anything? The poet’s hope is in posterity, but it is a pale hope; and now that posterity itself has become a pale hope...
    • "Poets, Critics, and Readers", p. 227
  • A few months ago I read an interview with a critic; a well-known critic; an unusually humane and intelligent critic. The interviewer had just said that the critic “sounded like a happy man”, and the interview was drawing to a close; the critic said, ending it all: “I read, but I don’t get any time to read at whim. All the reading I do is in order to write or teach, and I resent it. We have no TV, and I don’t listen to the radio or records, or go to art galleries or the theater. I’m a completely negative personality.”
    As I thought of that busy, artless life—no records, no paintings, no plays, no books except those you lecture on or write articles about—I was so depressed that I went back over the interview looking for some bright spot, and I found it, one beautiful sentence: for a moment I had left the gray, dutiful world of the professional critic, and was back in the sunlight and shadow, the unconsidered joys, the unreasoned sorrows, of ordinary readers and writers, amateurishly reading and writing “at whim”. The critic said that once a year he read Kim, it was plain, at whim: not to teach, not to criticize, just for love—he read it, as Kipling wrote it, just because he liked to, wanted to, couldn’t help himself. To him it wasn’t a means to a lecture or an article, it was an end; he read it not for anything he could get out of it, but for itself. And isn’t this what the work of art demands of us? The work of art, Rilke said, says to us always: You must change your life. It demands of us that we too see things as ends, not as means—that we too know them and love them for their own sake. This change is beyond us, perhaps, during the active, greedy, and powerful hours of our lives, but during the contemplative and sympathetic hours of our reading, our listening, our looking, it is surely within our power, if we choose to make it so, if we choose to let one part of our nature follow its natural desires. So I say to you, for a closing sentence: Read at whim! read at whim!
    • "Poets, Critics, and Readers", pp.228–229

Quotes about Jarrell[edit]

Alphabetized by author
  • To have your poems criticized by Jarrell — when they didn't please him — was like meeting your fate, like a foretaste of death. To go with his daunting judgement, he had an unlimited stock of images for catching exactly each poet's inadequacies, so that their predicaments were far more vividly expressed than anything they themselves had written. Jarrell made literature out of their failure to make it.
  • Jarrell's stylistic particularities have been hard for critics to hear and describe, both because the poems call readers' attention instead to their characters and because Jarrell's particular powers emerge so often from mimesis of speech. Jarrell's style responds to the alienations it delineates by incorporating or troping speech and conversation, linking emotional events within one person's psyche to speech acts that might take place between persons … Jarrell's style pivots on his sense of loneliness and on the intersubjectivity he sought as a response.
  • What he could do in poetry he did early and with prodigious security; he was one of our true poets for thirty years and practically the only American poet able to cope with the Second Great War; many of us both younger and older would acknowledge him as a master in one degree or another. It was this gift of true pitch that made his teaching voice, his critical voice, as penetrating as it was.
  • His multiple and eclectic virtues — originality, erudition, wit, probity, and an irresistible passion — combined to make him the best American poet-critic since Eliot. Or one could call him, after granting Eliot the English citizenship he so actively embraced, the best poet-critic we have ever had. Whichever side of the Atlantic one chooses to place Eliot, Jarrell was his superior in at least one significant respect. He captured a world that any contemporary poet will recognize as "the poetry scene"; his Poetry and the Age might even now be retitled Poetry and Our Age.
  • His dogmatism is more wild and personal than we are accustomed to, completely unspoiled by the hedging "equanimity" that weakens the style and temperament of so many of our serious writers. His murderous intuitive phrases are famous; but at the same time his mind is essentially conservative and takes as much joy in rescuing the reputation of a sleeping good writer as in chloroforming a mediocre one.
  • Your tenderness and terrorization, your prose sentences — like Bernini graves, staggeringly expensive, Italianate, warm, sentences once-and-for-all.
    • Karl Shapiro, in "Randall Jarrell" from The Bourgeois Poet (1964)

External links[edit]

Wikipedia
Wikipedia has an article about: