Friday, September 07, 2007

Restrain Yourselves

This morning I re-read W.D. Snodgrass' masterful essay on poetry, "Tact and the Poet's Force," which he wrote just under half a century ago (and which is included in a book I've raved about before, Claims for Poetry). In it, he states that, "it is a poet's business to say something interesting.... He always says something we have not heard before; he always suggests possibilities," and explores the three ways poets create something "worth stopping for":
  1. Through a new idea
  2. Through new details or facts within old ideas
  3. Through a new style
What I find most compelling about the essay, however, is Snodgrass' exposition on the critical role of tact and restraint in poetry, and the necessity of restraint in order to write effectively about the extraordinary and difficult truths that characterize human history. He makes the case that poets must be ambitious in what they write about; discussing Randall Jarrell's poem about the holocaust, "Protocols," he writes, "Such subjects become almost impossible to write about--during the war, in fact, Auden said they were impossible. Yet, if you cannot write about these, almost the key subjects to our civilization, why would anyone go to the terribly hard work that writing is?" It's a great piece -- a reminder of what poetry is all about and how poets can approach even the largest looming subjects.

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