SAFARI seems to no longer work
for comments...use another browser?

Monday, May 02, 2016

Another thing I liked--

a Pegasus for poetry
If you write poetry or love to read poetry, you might like to read this Paris Review interview with the late Peter Levi (1931-2000), poet and writer and classics scholar, a Jesuit priest for 29 years, and one of those lucky souls elected Oxford Professor of Poetry. I read it last night (hat tip to A. M. Juster) and then again this morning. It is long and crammed with interesting talk about his life and poetry, and it's opinionated enough that a reader finds points of disagreement--that's part of what makes it so interesting. Now I think that I would like to read something of his. (Via twitter, editor John Wilson tells me that the Brigid Allen biography of Peter Levi is quite good.) Here are a few samples that by no means exhaust what is curious or compelling in the interview (The Art of Poetry, no. 24):


George Seferis in a diary speaks of life, without writing poems, as a disorder. I remember thinking when I read that first, it’s the opposite. Poems are a disorder. However necessary and desirable, however protecting the survival of the brute life of childhood, a disorder. But now after a long time of not writing poems, I see he’s right. Without writing one just piles up like heaps of leaves. One doesn’t know what is happening or who one is. And soon one will not dare ask, perhaps, any honest question. Or worse, one may stumble unguarded on some honest answer. Because there is no way of knowing the implications of feeling, except of precise feeling, of something quite exact, as happens in a poem. It is as if poetry were a continual whale spouting or breathing. And yet this is not why one writes poetry. One writes it because of the things themselves, and the words themselves, and the people themselves.


He makes a kind of compelling noise, doesn’t he? He’s the ancient mariner all right. Yeats worked from notes too. One of the most impressive things that I know about him comes from his notebooks. He writes out in prose several times, beginnings for a poem. He starts out by saying: “I have often taken off my clothes, both fast and slowly, for this or that woman.” He goes on in that boring, silly old man’s way. Very embarrassing. And then, do you know what the first lines of that poem are?

That is no country for old men. The young 
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

It makes me cry it’s so beautiful. If you’re a poet, when you start to write, then you are serious. Or you’d better be. None of us can be serious all the time. To be serious in that sense requires a lot of things, such as being relaxed beforehand, things like love and generosity, and discipline, and a sufficient degree of venom. Self-hatred, love of others, hatred of others . . . all these things you need . . . whatever is the right mixture for you.


You can drive out bad writing by good writing only because the public reads your works and not the other works. Therefore it’s the readers who do it, not the writer. Language lives in the mouth.


  1. Without writing one just piles up like heaps of leaves. One doesn’t know what is happening or who one is.

    How right that is! Years ago I realized that writing (prose for me, though I am a reader of poetry) is one of the primary ways in which I think about existence. Writing has become a habitual way of sorting out the world. During periods when I am not writing, I never feel fully awake.

    1. Liked that so much--I've always wondered how people navigate life without writing or making art. Although I think that "art" can stretch to cover many creative things that a person is committed to doing.

  2. i believe that EVERYONE is a poet, whether they are aware of it or not... it's part and parcel of the human condition. it's just that in most it's never expressed or recognized as such. when ever a tree or a mudpuddle is seen, poetry is there... haha or maybe it would be more correct to say everything we sense is poetic, whether we recognize it or no; how to separate the poem from the poetry, aye, there's the rub...

    1. The world is full of spirit! And mud puddles are grand places to play and great reflectors. The poem from the poetry...

      O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
      Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
      O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
      How can we know the dancer from the dance?

  3. I've been writing lots of poems since your earlier recommendations. I guess I wrote poems in high school, that sort of thing, but now I want to write a good sonnet. Laughing. I've learned a lot reading poetry the last two years. I always read poetry but never studied it like I do now. It's how you learn the best descriptive language. For some reason, poetry, the work of it, takes me out of myself instead of inward. It's a lot like gardening. I find it hopeful.

    1. Oh, that's grand! I'm so glad. A good sonnet is a high goal. And yes, I think that a form like a sonnet pulls us outward--the rhyme and shape leads us on into unexpected places.

      But flowers distilled, though they with winter meet,
      Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.
      --Wm. Sh. #5

  4. Always I run on too much. Not here though. This is good, connected, knowledgeable, passionate, occasionally idiomatic, persuasive stuff. I could elaborate, but no. Do me the great favour of taking these few words at face value. And see: no jokes either.

    1. I think the whole is well worth reading. And I knew nothing of him!

  5. This post is a great mini-florilegium of thoughts.

    Last week, I wondered if maybe I'd have less stress in my life if I were to stop writing. I quickly realized that if I did, I'd have no way to make sense of any of my experiences. It's not even an option I can consider at this point, though; it's simply too late to stop.

    1. You know, it has taken me years to adjust to a world that doesn't care if we are ceaselessly creative or not. And I found that stressful; I also found the marketing of often-meretricious art stressful. Meanwhile, I kept thinking that I didn't care about worldly success and only cared about making living works. But I still was bothered by how the world works, by the selling of art "products" and so on.

      Now I think I might really be all the way into that good kingdom where I no longer care that the world often loves and promotes dross, and that wonderful things are turned into widgets. It's much more peaceful and joyful. Maybe it really is finally The Palace at 2:00 a.m.

    2. humans en masse are boring. art should magicalize reality in order to bring it more strongly into perception so that some can, need i say it, jump out of their mudpuddles...

    3. Yes, I believe in enchanting the world through art--and that such a thing gives us new eyes to see what we have not been able to notice.


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.