happy National Poetry Day

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…and a third Forward Prize each to Don Paterson and Robin Robertson! This time for Best Collection and Best Poem, respectively. Condolences to Salt poet Sîan Hughes.

And it’s National Poetry Day, so have a happy one! What is poetry? What’s it for? Here are some ideas – some from the Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations, some from various other sources – by some of my poetry heroes and anti-heroes. Let me know what you think in the comments.

There are three kinds of poetry. Lying-down poetry is supine poetry that accepts the status quo and is so laid back it has a hard time keeping awake. Sitting poetry is ambivalent poetry written by the sitting establishment with vested interests, its bottom line dictated by its day job. Standing poetry is the poetry of commitment, often great, often dreadful.
—Lawrence Ferlinghetti, What is Poetry?: A Non-Lecture

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The definition of good prose is – proper words in their proper places; of good verse – the most proper words in their proper places. The words in prose ought to express their intended meaning, and no more… But in verse, you must do more; there the words [are] the media
—ST Coleridge, Table Talk

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Poetry is not the thing said but the way of saying it. Can it then be isolated and studied by itself? For the combination of language with its intellectual content, its meaning, is as close a union as can well be imagined. Is there such a thing as pure unmingled poetry, poetry independent of meaning?

Meaning is of the intellect, poetry is not. If it were, the eighteenth century would have been able to write it better.

Poetry indeed seems to be more physical than intellectual.
—AE Housman

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Poetry is energy, it is an energy-storing and an energy-releasing device.
—Miroslav Holub, Poetry Ireland Review, 1990

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Poesy is the flower of the sun, and disdains to open to the eye of a candle.
—George Chapman, preface to the Iliad

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It has been said that he alone who has no style has true style. It would be better to say that he alone who has no manner has the first condition of style.
—Coventry Patmore, Religio Poetae

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The great poet has less a mark’d style, and is more the channel for thoughts and things without increase or diminution, and is the free channel of himself… what I portray shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me.
—Walt Whitman, introduction to Leaves of Grass

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The problem with most free verse is that it locates wisdom in the self and not in language.
—Glyn Maxwell, Bloodaxe Books catalogue, 1995

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A poem needs nervous tension, like an arrow needs a bowstring.
—AB Jackson, Poetry News, winter 2003/4

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Poetic language is essentially oxymoronic, a coinage stamped on two sides with logically irreconcilable messages.
—Anne Stevenson, Contemporary Women’s Poets

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A poem must be a closed system.
—WH Auden, introduction to The Dyer’s Hand

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Poetry is not a matter of feelings, it is a matter of language.  It is language which creates feelings.
—Umberto Eco, The Independent, 1995

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Form is a straitjacket in the way that a straitjacket was a straitjacket for Houdini.
—Paul Muldoon, Irish Times, 2003

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Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those how have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
—TS Eliot, The Sacred Wood

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An artist must serve Mammon; he must have ‘self-concentration’ – selfishness, perhaps. You, I am sure, will forgive me for sincerely remarking that you might curb your magnanimity, and be more of an artist, and load every rift of your subject with ore.
—Keats, in a letter to Shelley

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Poetry is what gets lost in translation.
—Robert Frost

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Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.
—PB Shelley, A Defence of Poetry

Regular readers may know that one of my biggest poetry heroes is Wallace Stevens. Click here for some of his thoughts on what poetry is and isn’t.

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