Notes & Quotes at Semi-Random
Philip Larkin on poetic clarity, and on not being a "difficult" or "abstruse" poet:
I think that a poem should be understood at first reading line by line, but I don’t think it should be exhausted at that first reading. I hope that what I write gives the reader something when they read it first, enough in fact to make them read it again and so on ad infinitum.
The average man simply spends his leisure as a dog spends it. His recreations are all puerile, and the time supposed to benefit him really only stupefies him.
—H.L. Mencken, Minority Report
This makes me think of the usefulness of doing nothing, which is in fact the opposite of being bored. People avoid boredom by filling all the gaps in their time with rapid activity, in the same way that people who are afraid of silences, especially in conversation, chatter incessantly without really saying anything. Their signal-to-noise ratio is very high, in that mostly what they fill the gaps with is noise, not signal. In fact, signal arises from silence, or that place that surrounds silence with active listening.
from Henry David Thoreau's Journal, 12 May 1857:
How rarely I meet with a man who can be free, even in thought! We live according to rule. Some men are bedridden; all world-ridden. I take my neighbor, an intellectual man, out into the woods and invite him to take a new and absolute view of things, to empty clean out his thoughts all institutions of men and start again; but he can’t do it, he sticks to his traditions and his crochets. He thinks that governments, colleges, newspapers, etc., are from everlasting to everlasting.
Jean Cocteau on the new in art:
We are worried when we cannot make comparisons. Our whole system of pleasure is based on comparisons. If we are satisfied with our own work, it is probable that it bears some resemblance to other works with which we are preoccupied. But if we produce something really new, as this novelty is not based on any definite recollection, it leaves us as it were, with one leg in the air, alone in the world. We are as much disconcerted and disappointed by it as the reader will be.
We are inclined to judge what is beautiful by what is familiar.
Rilke wrote in The Notebooks of Malte Laurits Brigge, his fictionalized almost-autobiography, that poetry is experience, not emotion:
Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life. You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a long one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines. For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)—they are experiences. For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning. You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained, to parents whom you had to hurt when they brought in a joy and you didn't pick it up (it was a joy meant for somebody else—); to childhood illnesses that began so strangely with some many profound and difficult transformations, to days in quiet, restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars,—and it still not enough to be able to think of all that. You must have memories of many nights of live, each one different from alll the others, memories of women screaming in labor, and of light, pale, sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again. But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the scattered noises. And it is not enough yet to have memories. You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return. For the memories themselves are not important. Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them. (trans. by Stephen Mitchell)
Here's a bit of a psychological insight about why so many teenage angst-ridden journal-poets write about the Inner Darkness Of My Soul: it’s because they just discovered it, and it scares them, and also attracts them.
The problem they have, when they write these mostly bad adolescent poems about what they have just discovered, is that they haven't followed Rilke's advice in Malte, and gathered enough experiences yet in order to be able to let the true poem arise. They write too soon, and think they were the first to have so written, and that they were the first to have discovered their own inner darknesses. And they are astonished when they go out to read poetry of great depth and richness that was written before they were born: they discover, in their reading, that they have found nothing new at all, but something very old, and very familiar to any poet who has been through the dark night. Furthermore, it is nothing to be feared, but embraced and brought into oneself, and made new, that way, in those inner rooms, in which the real poetry will later reveal itself.
If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
—Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Which leads me to think of John Masefield's poem Sea Fever:
I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea's face and a grey dawn breaking.
I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must down to the seas again to the vagrant gypsy life.
To the gull's way and the whale's way where the wind's like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over.
A very intimate sense of the expressiveness of outward things, which ponders, listens, penetrates, where the earlier, less developed consciousness passed lightly by, is an important element in the general temper of our modern poetry.