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.

August 8, 2007

The Case Against Poetry Workshops, Quote of the Day (Lawrence Ferlinghetti)

“Can you imagine Keats or Shelley going to a poetry workshop?”

Should poets stay home and read poetry instead of taking their work to workshops for critiques? Sometimes, yes, says Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the author of Coney Island of the Mind: Poems (New Directions, $9.95, paperback) and other books. Julia Oder asked him recently what he thought of the current “obsession” with workshops. His answer:

“Poets in small towns like Hailey, Idaho, feel they have no one to talk to about poetry. Everyone’s watching football on TV. So the poetry workshop serves a wonderful purpose for lost souls trying to find themselves in poetry. But if you’re in a big city, you don’t need it. I think it’s better for poets to stay away from poetry workshops. I mean, in a place like San Francisco, there are so many poetry readings going on – practically every night there’s one.”

Oder followed up by asking Ferlinghetti if he thought a poet could learn a lot just by reading poetry. He replied:

“Yes, it’s much better just to read it. And then I think – can you imagine Keats or Shelley going to a poetry workshop?”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti in “Poetry’s Eternal Graffiti: Late-Night Conversations With Lawrence Ferlnghetti,” by Julia Oder, Poets & Writers magazine, March-April 2007 issue. I couldn’t find the interview on the site for the magazine, but if you search for “Ferlinghetti” there, you’ll find lots of other articles about him.

Comment by Jan Harayda:

Ferlinghetti has a point that also applies to other kinds of writers’ groups. You have to be careful about when, why and which groups you join. They can hurt you if they devolve into a substitute for serious reading and writing. Groups that consist only of writers who have published little or nothing can involve other problems, especially if they include critiques of members’ work. The people in your group may not know how to give you the feedback you need to get published or make other kinds of progress. If they don’t, you might gain more from taking a class with a writer you admire who has achieved some of the things you’d like to accomplish.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

July 19, 2007

The Case Against Poetry Readings: Quote of the Day (Philip Larkin)

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:03 pm
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Most poets today seem to give readings. One who usually declined invitations to do this was Philip Larkin (1922–1985), one of the great English poets of the 20th century. Larkin explained why in an interview with the Paris Review:

“I don’t give readings, no, although I have recorded three of my collections, just to show how I should read them. Hearing a poem, as opposed to reading it on the page, means you miss so much – the shape, the punctuation, the italics, even knowing how far you are from the end. Reading it on the page means you can go at your own pace, taking it in properly; hearing it means you’re dragged along at the speaker’s own rate, missing things, not taking it in, confusing ‘there’ and ‘their’ and things like that. And the speaker may interpose his own personality between you and the poem, for better or worse. For that matter, so may an audience. I don’t like hearing things in public, even music. In fact, I think poetry readings grew up on a false analogy with music: the text is the ‘score’ that doesn’t ‘come to life’ until it’s ‘performed.’ It’s false because people can read words, whereas they can’t read music. When you write a poem, you put everything into it that’s needed: the reader should ‘hear’ it just as clearly as if you were in the room saying it to him. And of course this fashion for poetry readings has led to a kind of poetry that you can understand first go: easy rhythms, easy emotions, easy syntax. I don’t think it stands up on the page.”

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. This is one of the great interviews in the Paris Review series for several reasons, including Larkin’s genius, Phillips’s skill as an interviewer and the scope of the questions. You can find the full interview at the site for the Paris Review . (I’m having trouble linking directly to the interview, but you can find it by going to the site and entering “Larkin” in the search box. The interview appeared in the Summer 1982 issue.) Most libraries and many bookstores also have books in the Paris Review series.

Comment by Janice Harayda:
I go to poetry readings and read from my novels at bookstores and elsewhere, but I can see Larkin’s point. How about you?

You can find more information on Larkin and read his poem “Home Is So Sad” at

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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