One-Minute Book Reviews

August 17, 2007

How Should We Judge Poetry? Quote of the Day (Philip Larkin)

Filed under: Poetry,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:56 pm
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How should we judge poetry? What makes it succeed or fail? Does the subject of a poem matter? Or should we judge by execution alone? Philip Larkin (1922–1985) gave this answer after an interviewer for the Paris Review mentioned that the poet and critic Peter Davison saw Larkin’s favorite subjects as “failure” and “weakness”:

“I think a poet should be judged by what he does with his subjects, not by what his subjects are. Otherwise you’re getting near the totalitarian attitude of wanting poems about steel production figures rather than ‘Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?’ Poetry isn’t a kind of paint spray you use to cover selected objects with. A good poem about failure is a success.”

Philip Larkin in an interview with Robert Phillips in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews: Seventh Series (Viking, 1986), edited by George Plimpton. Introduction by John Updike. To read the full interview, which appeared in the Summer 1982 issue of the Paris Review, go to the Paris Review site and enter “Larkin” in the search box.

Comment by Janice Harayda:
Some critics still judge poets and other writers partly by their subjects. For example, they may overpraise writers who deal with new or unusual subjects — even if the writing is awful — because the novelty makes the work appear original. Okay, all of you who knew right away that Larkin’s French quote translates to, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?” (and anybody else who wants to jump in): How do you think critics should judge poems and other works?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. To be as brief as possible, William Wordsworth wrote, “For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” and “the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling.” I take from Wordsworth’s quote that he believed poetry was the product of deep emotions that welled up in the poet and spilled out onto paper. However, he also believed those strong feelings will only produce good poetry if the poet possesses enough sensitivity and has thought seriously about life’s experiences to the point where the poet’s feelings will automatically be universal in nature. In other words, the common man should be able to relate to it in such a way as to produce an elevated spirit. Wordsworth believed that poetry reveals truth itself. Therefore, the critic then, ought to judge a poem on the merits of universal appeal and enlightenment, and not by code or rules, in my opinion.

    Comment by janetleigh — August 19, 2007 @ 12:52 pm | Reply

  2. Thank you! I didn’t know what Wordsworth quote (even after having been to Dove Cottage) and think his comments sum up what poetry is “about.” Wordsworth and Larkin seem to agree that poetry is about truth, and you can tell the truth on any subject if, as W. said, you have the sensitivity and willingness to think hard. A lot of writers (not just poets) seem to have one or the other trait: They have the sensitivity but haven’t thought hard enough about their subjects. Or they’ve thought hard but lack the sensitivity (which can be cultivated to some extent, but not completely).

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — August 19, 2007 @ 8:07 pm | Reply

  3. Yes, I think that’s about right. The only thing I would mention further is this: I’m not sure it’s a matter of thinking on something “hard” but more this, that accumulated experience over time lends itself to understanding and mastering human nature so feelings can be expressed that appeal to Man, universally. It’s a matter of coming to the right expression while in a state of tranquility rather than doing a brain dump at the height of passion. Another way of approaching the idea is to think of a writer gathering impressions in a measured way until words can express the deepest feelings known to all men. Ack! I’m sorry. It’s becoming apparent to me that I’m stirring an emotional stew while attempting to discharge food for thought. I think that’s what happens when a person with a brain the size of a marble tries to come across as one with a brain the size of a planet! Oh well, I hope you’re laughing along with me…at least we can say we’re expressing *deep emotional* hilarity. Have I made any sense at all?

    By the way, I just noticed my name at the end of my comment isn’t an active link back to my page. I’m new at this. Would you enlighten me as to how I make it active?

    I am so enjoying your blog!

    Comment by janetleigh — August 19, 2007 @ 8:56 pm | Reply

  4. You’re making a lot of sense to me (and seem able to draw much finer distinctions than I can at this hour).

    It you visited my blog after logging into WordPress, your link should become active automatically. (You don’t have to do anything extra if you’re properly logged in, so maybe you’re coming here from some place besides WordPress?) Here’s what you can do until you get this sorted out: Every time you comment on someone’s blog, hand-insert the link at the end. To do that you type http://yourblogaddress/. For example, if you have a WordPress blog, type:

    Why don’t you leave another comment here and try that? You can also send me your blog URL and I’ll insert if for you on your two earlier comments. I’m a little frustrated right now by not being able to get the WordPress support I need on a theme issue, so I’d be glad to try to work with you on this one until you figure out how to get a live link.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — August 19, 2007 @ 11:35 pm | Reply

  5. Quick follow-up: Your link went live in these when I typed in; the link took me right to your blog when I clicked on it. So that will work for you, too, as an interim measure. But you probably don’t want to have to hand-enter that every time, so I would try to figure out why it didn’t go live automatically. Good luck!

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — August 19, 2007 @ 11:39 pm | Reply

  6. […] say that General Aether Dynamics lacks any value or credit. It is just a kind of succes of “a good poem about failure” (Philip Larkin) – a failure can be a succesful event in art, e.g., Vorticism, but because […]

    Pingback by After all, General Aether Dynamics, like Rome, was not built in a day « Æther Tracker — October 31, 2007 @ 2:29 am | Reply

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