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Excerpts from The Life of Poetry



There are many people who will say that this is not a time for poetry.

It is a fact that there is little enough to which anyone can point and say, “That poem speaks to me.”

They will speak of Elizabethan England as the great setting for poets. There was a sense, then, they will tell you, of expansion and discovery unlimited — of the new and the strange within reach — the hostile legendary seas now opening upon other countries under God, with striped men, greenness beyond imagined jungles, every monster newness, volcanoes of gold; a swarm to the mind, so that it must open, go it must and discover. All appetite and power is suddenly here, within the hand, within the poem, to those who dare.

Mostly because of two things: the sea, sea-power, what that meant to the island, and because of that most excellent invention, America.

Our age is opening now. We have the air, and its other dimension. We have the frontier of nuclear energy, whose curse has already been chosen, and for whose blessing we must live. And we have, for the first time in history, among all the longing for communication which we can see everywhere: communication with the secret life of the individual, communication through machines, communication between peoples — we have the sense of the world — a real and spiritual unity which offers greater newness than America, greater explorations, and wealth of human meanings and resources that has never before been reached.

We have, in the opening of such a time, a sense of an age disclosing undefined possibilities, new meanings for multiplicity, and new meanings for unity.

This age contains the promise of poetry among its great promises.

But this is simply one of many needs.


Poetry will not answer these needs. It is art: it imagines and makes, and gives you the imaginings. Because you have imagined love, you have not loved; merely because you have imagined brotherhood, you have not made brotherhood. You may feel as though you had, but you have not. You are going to have to use that imagining as you best can, by building it into yourself, or you will be left with nothing but illusion.

Art is action, but it does not cause action: rather, it prepares us for thought.

Art is intellectual, but it does not cause thought: rather, it prepares us for thought.

Art is not a world, but a knowing of the world. Art prepares us.

Art is practiced by the artist and the audience. It is not a means to an end, unless that end is the total imaginative experience.

That experience will have meaning. It will apply to your life; and it is more than likely to lead you to thought or action, that is, you are likely to want to go further into the world, further into yourself, toward further experience.


Art and nature are imitations, not of each other, but of the same third thing — both images of the real, the spectral and vivid reality that employs all means. If we fear it in art, we fear it in nature, and our fear brings it on ourselves in the mot unanswerable ways.

The implications for society and for the individual are far-reaching.

People want this speech, this immediacy. They need it. The fear of poetry is a complicated and civilized repression of that need. We wish to be told, in the most memorable way, what we have been meaning all along.

This is a ritual moment, a moment of proof. [pp. 24–26]

In art, there is no distinction between object and communication. The valid distinctions exist, and profusely. But they must be expressed in terms of the transfer between the artwork and the receiver, according to an experience which does not reject any part of the meaning. The intention of the artist, the methods — the bits of film on the cutting room floor, the juggling of film sequences or the sections of a poem — these are technical considerations. When the practice of art is a base of our education, and when the search for truth in experience is regarded as something characteristic of the artist as well as the scientist, then the distinctions of judgment will be part of popular appreciation.

At this period, we see the converse of such possibility. Our schools do not now train the young to be artists; our movie studios now require writers who do not need to know how to write (according to Leo Rosten’s Hollywood surveys); our culture as a whole does not produce an audience with belief in its own reactions. This is seen most clearly in the movie audience and the movie-makers. In Europe, there was always the idea of an aristocracy of intellectuals, taking its place of power among the other aristocracies; and this idea reaches us even through the younger and more venturesome publishers, who speak of building an elite of readers. We need never use such currency again, nor build a social structure of any kind in which the work of the group is directed towards the development of an elite. We have our symbols to build; but they are not to be the symbols of monarchies or elite groups. The symbols can be corrupted, the artists can be corrupted, the audience can be corrupted. Our history of movies shows that truth. But this, too, can be dealt with, and in one generation a new beginning can be made.

The writer becoming an employee in Hollywood, forced to conform to a code which dictates emotional limits, and producing material which can be censored and re-arranged, with or without his knowledge, is a key figure in our society. More than the political under orders, or the most constricted civil servant, he is the archetype of the citizen of the police state. It is not the state of which the satirists dream, with the dingy furnishings, the disconsolate weather, the sexless boredom, of anti-Utopia. The delight of strong sun and crashing rains and cool insinuating evenings, the attractive bodies and the green lights of custom, the drinks and the music and the money, are to be thought of along with the company-town aspect of a community which devotes itself to the adjustment of stories and ideas. Among all this, the political hunting, the robot extras, the technicians who never meet the “artists,” the laid-off and rejected who live in the place, ready to be drawn on during a labor crisis of any kind; and the few working artists, dancing their razor-edge, pouring their energies into various fights: the fight to insist on their work’s getting through, the fight to resist corruption of consciousness, the fight to organize the others. [pp. 145–147]