Nobody knows what poetry is for. I think it is for something of great importance; that it is not trivial. … It follows that the reading of poetry is a spiritual exercise. For me, what poetry is about is the experience of awe. I only really care about poetry, or music, or art, that offers this sense of wonder about being alive in the first place. If you’ve never felt this reading a poem then you need to read someone else’s blog and leave me alone. … There are poets who write poems, and have a decent, acceptable, style, but don’t seem connected at all to anything related to the awesomeness of poetry. There are critics who make nice arguments about which poetry belongs in which category. I have done that myself. A lot of this has nothing to do with poetry and can be safely ignored.
There is a puzzling dichotomy in twentieth century poetics. Let us call it the division between aesthetics and the anti-aesthetic. It manifests itself in the debate between art itself (on the one hand) and socio-political uses of art. … Both sides of the debate are actually in complete agreement with each other, deploying the exact same dichotomy without questioning it. … So the puzzle is that this dichotomy would have not been comprehensible 100 years earlier. If you asked Shelley about this, he would not have understood what you meant. Or Milton or Spenser. The terms were not yet in opposition; the debate was not framed in that way in the least.
Reading poetry is a ruminative activity. Instead of being absorbed for hours in the reading of a continuous narrative, you read very short texts over and over again and then think about them for a long time. To read (really read) vast quantities of poetry is guaranteed to make you somewhat insane, since it invites solitary rumination. … I am now the only poetry specialist in my department, so the effects of isolation are even greater.
If you are a scholar of poetry, then you know how to pay close attention to every word and every space. You have, then, a certain prose responsibility to poetry. You must write well and accurately. You don’t have to be a poet, but pretty close. Everything I regret in my own work is the result of failure to live up to this ideal.
Research is attested to in writing. Yet teaching is quintessentially oral. The living presence of the voice is what matters. … I found myself yesterday in the engineering building, a third of a mile from my office, about to teach a class but without a copy of the novel we were reading. I still did fine, even referring to specific words and passages. Essentially I was teaching naked, though clothed in suit and tie. …You should be able to teach *viva voce*. If you need specific formats for information, such as tables of statistics, in your field, that’s fine. In poetry we depend on the written text too, and typographical details of the text can be extremely significant. But you shouldn’t have to look at notes to be able to teach something that you know well.
photo by Bob Basil