Poetry & Ambition

We find our models of ambition mostly from reading.

We develop the notion of art from our reading. When we call the poem more important than ourselves, it is not that we have confidence in our ability to write it; we believe in poetry. We look daily at the great monuments of old accomplishment and we desire to add to their number, to make poems in homage to poems. Old poems that we continue to read and love become the standard we try to live up to. These poems, internalized, criticize our own work. These old poems become our Muse, our encouragement to song and our discouragement of comparison.

Therefore it is essential for poets, all the time, to read and reread the great ones. Some lucky poets make their living by publicly reacquainting themselves in the classroom with the great poems of the language. Alas, many poets now teach nothing but creative writing, read nothing but the words of children … (I will return to this subject).

It is also true that many would-be poets lack respect for learning. How strange that the old ones read books. . . . Keats stopped school when he was fifteen or so; but he translated theAeneid in order to study it and worked over Dante in Italian and daily sat at the feet of Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton. (“Keats studied the old poets every day / Instead of picking up his M.F.A.”) Ben Jonson was learned and in his cups looked down at Shakespeare’s relative ignorance of ancient languages—but Shakespeare learned more language and literature at his Stratford grammar school than we acquire in twenty years of schooling. Whitman read and educated himself with vigor; Eliot and Pound continued their studies after stints of graduate school.

On the other hand, we play records all night and write unambitious poems. Even talented young poets—saturated in S’ung, suffused in Sufi—know nothing of Bishop King’s “Exequy.” The syntax and sounds of one’s own tongue, and that tongue’s four-hundred-year-old ancestors, give us more than all the classics of all the world in translation.

But to struggle to read the great poems of another language—in the language—that is another thing. We are the first generation of poets not to study Latin; not to read Dante in Italian. Thus the puniness of our unambitious syntax and limited vocabulary.

When we have read the great poems we can study as well the lives of the poets. It is useful, in the pursuit of models, to read the lives and letters of the poets whose work we love. Keats’s letters, heaven knows.

from Poetry & Ambition by Donald Hall

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