April 09, 1916, NYTimes Interview by JOYCE KILMER:Edwin Arlington Robinson Defines Poetry; A Language, Says Well-Known Poet, that tells us through more or less emotional reaction something which cannot be said

I typed out of the original photo documentation from New York Times  archives by way of my instant liking for an almost century old print that spoke volumes of how poetry remains deeply rooted till today, to the basic values discussed by Edward Arlington Robinson and Joyce Kilmer. ( Top class pioneers of the 20th century writing)  I liked the interview format, as in a prose form too. I guess copyright issues do not affect as this is purely meant for blog reading and not for commercial reproduction. Here’s a link to the copyrighted photo PDF.

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9402E4DD1439E233A2575AC0A9629C946796D6CF#

 

At no time in the history of literature have the critics been able to agree upon a definition of poetry. And the recent popularity of VERS LIBRE and IMAGISME has made the definer’s task harder than ever before.

IS RHYME ESSENTIAL TO POETRY?  IS RHYTHM ESSENTIAL TO POETRY? CAN A MERE REFLECTION OF LIFE  JUSTLY BE CALLED POETRY, OR MUST IMAGINATION BE  PRESENT?

I put some of these questions to EDWARD ARLINGTON ROBINSON, who wrote ” CAPTAIN CRAIG” ” THE TOWN DOWN THE RIVER” and ” THE MAN AGAINST THE SKY”. And this man, whom WILLIAM STANLEY BRAITHWAITE and other authoritative critics have called the foremost of American poets, this student of  life, who was revealing the mysterious poetry of humanity many years before EDGAR LEE MASTERS discovered to the world the vexed spirits  that HEART SPOON RIVER, rewarded my questioning with a new definition of poetry.

He said : POETRY IS A LANGUAGE THAT TELLS US, THROUGH MORE OR LESS EMOTIONAL REACTION, SOMETHING THAT CANNOT BE SAID. ” ALL THAT POETRY, GREAT OR SMALL DOES THIS” he added ” AND IT SEEMS TO ME THAT POETRY HAS TWO CHARACTERISTICS. ONE IS THAT IT IS AFTER ALL UNDEFINABLE. THE OTHER IS THAT IT IS EVENTUALLY MISTAKABLE.

“Eventually ,” I said. ” Then you think that poetry is not always appreciated in the lifetime of its maker?”

Mr. Robinson smiled whimsically.” I never use words enough,” he said.” It is not unmistakable as soon as it is published but sooner or later it is unmistakable.

AND IN THE POET’S LIFETIME THERE ARE ALWAYS SOME PEOPLE  WHO WILL UNDERSTAND AND APPRECIATE HIS WORK. I REALLY THINK THAT IT IS IMPOSSIBLE FOR A REAL POET PERMANENTLY TO ESCAPE APPRECIATION. AND I CAN’T IMAGINE ANYTHING SILLIER FOR A MAN TO DO THAN TO WORRY ABOUT POETRY THAT HAS ONCE BEEN DECENTLY PUBLISHED. THE REST IS IN THE HANDS OF TIME, AND TIME HAS MORE THAN OFTEN A WAY OF MAKING A PRETTY THOROUGH JOB OF IT.”

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But why is it,” I asked,” that a great poet is without honor in his own generation where mediocrity is immediately famous?”

” it’s hard to say” said Mr. Robinson , thoughtfully regarding the glowing end of his cigar. ” Many causes prevent poetry from being correctly appraised in its own time. Any poetry that is marked by violence, that is conspicuous in color, that is sensationally odd, makes an immediate appeal. On the other hand, poetry that is not noticeably eccentric sometimes fails for years to attract any attention.

” I think that this is why so many of KIPLING’s worst poems are greatly overpraised, while some of his best poems  are not appreciated. ” GUNGA DIN” which is, of course, a good thing in its way, has been praised far more than it deserves because of its oddity. And the poem beginning ” There’s a whisper down the field’ has never been properly appreciated. It’s one of the very best of Kipling’s poems, although it is marred by a few lapses of taste. One of his greatest poems, by the way, ” The Children of the Zodiac,” happens to be in prose.

” But I am always revising my opinion of Kipling. I have changed my mind about him so often that I have no confidence in my critical judgement. That is one of the reasons why I do not like to criticise my American contemporaries.”

” Do you think,” I asked ” That this tendency to pay attention chiefly to the more sensational poets is a characteristic of our generation  as of those that came before?”

” I think it applies particularly to our own time,” he replied.” More than ever before oddity and violence are bringing into prominence poets who have little besides these two qualities to offer the world, and some who have more. It may seem very strange to you, but I think that a great modern instance of this tendency is the case of Robert Browning. The eccentricities of Browning’s method are the things that first turned popular attention upon him, but the startling quality in BROWNING made more sensation in his own time than it can ever make again. I say this in spite of the fact that BROWNING and WORDSWORTH,are taken as classic examples of slow recognition. WORDSWORTH, you know, had no respect for the judgement of youth. It may have been sour grapes, but I am inclined to think that there was a great deal of truth in his opinion.

” I think it is safe to say that all real poetry is going to give at some time or other a suggestion of FINALITY. In real poetry you find also about it a sort of NIMBUS os what can’t be said.

” This NIMBUS may be there- I wouldn’t say that it isn’t there and yet I can’t find it in much of the self-conscious experimenting that is going on nowadays in the name of poetry.

” I can’t get over the impression,” Mr. Robinson went on, with a meditative frown,” that these post-impressionists in painting and most of the VERS LIBRISTES in poetry are trying to find some sort of SHORT CUT to artistic success. I know that many of the new writers insist that it is harder to write good rhymed poetry. And judging from some of their results, I am inclined to agree with them.”

I asked Mr. Robinson if he believed that the evident increase in interest in poetry, shown by the large sales of the work of ROBERT FROST and EDGAR LEE MASTERS and RUPERT BROOKE, indicated a real renascence of poetry.

” I think that it indicates a real renascence of poetry,” he replied.” I am sufficiently childlike and hopeful to find it very encouraging.”

” DO YOU THINK,” I asked , ” that the Poetry that is written in  America today is better than that written a generation ago?”

” I should hardly venture to say that,” said Mr. Robinson.” For one thing we have no EMERSON. EMERSON is the greatest poet who ever wrote in America. Passages scattered here and there in his work surely are the greatest of American poetry. In fact, I think that there are lines and sentences in Emerson’s poetry that are as great as anything anywhere.”

I asked Mr. Robinson whether he thought the modern English poets were doing better work than their American contemporaries.At first he was unwilling to express an opinion on this subject, repeating his statement that he mistrusted his own critical judgement. But he said: ” Within his limits, I believe that A.E. Housman is the most authentic poet now writing in England. But, of course, his limits are very sharply drawn, I don’t think that anyone who knows anything about poetry will ever think of questioning the inspiration of  “A Shropshire Lad”.

” Would you make a similar comment on any other poetry of our time?” I asked.

” Well” said Mr. Robinson reflectively ” I think that no one will question the inspiration os some of Kipling’s poems, of parts of JOHN MASEFIELD’s ” DAUBER” and some of the long lyrics by ALFRED NOYES. But I do not think that either of these poets gives the impression of finality which A.E.HOUSMAN gives. But the way in which I have shifted my opinion about some of RUDYARD KIPLING’s poems and most of SWINEBURNE“S , makes me think that Wordsworth was very largely right in his attitude toward the judgement of youth. But where my opinions have shifted, I think now that I always had misgivings. I fancy that youth always has misgivings in regard to what  is later to be modified or repudiated.”

Then I asked Mr. Robinson if he thought that the war had anything to with the RENASCENCE OF POETRY .

” I can’t see any connection,” he replied.” The only effect on poetry that the war has had, so far as I know, is to produce those five sonnets by RUPERT BROOKE. I can’t see that it has caused any poetical event. And there’s no use prophesying what the war will or will not do to poetry, because no one knows anything about it. The civil war seems to have had a little effect o poetry except to produce JULIA WARD HOWE’S ‘ Battle hymn of the Republic,” Whitman’s  poems on the death of Lincoln and LOWELL’s -ODE.

“Mr. Robinson,” I said ” e has been much discussion recently about the rewards of poetry, and Miss Amy Lowell has said that no poet ought to be expected to make a living by writing. What do you think about it?”

” Should a poet be able to make a living out of poetry?” said Mr. Robinson.” Generally speaking, it is not possible for a poet to make a decent living by his work. In most cases it would be bad for his creative faculties for a poet to make as much money as a successful novelist makes. Fortunately there is no danger of that. Now, assuming that a poet has enough money to live on, the most important thing for him to have is an audience. I mean that the best poetry is in the air. If a poet with no obligations and responsibilities except to stay alive can’t live on a thousand dollars a year, ( I don’t undertake to say just how he is going to get it) he’d better go into some business.

” Then you don’t think,” I said, ” that literature has lost through the poverty of poets?”

” I certainly do believe that literature has lost through the poverty of poets.” said Mr. Robinson. ” I don’t believe in poverty. I never did. I think it is good for a poet to be bumped and knocked around when he is young, but all the difficulties that are put in his way after he gets to be 25 or 30 are certain to take something out of his work. I don’t see how they can do anything else.”

” Sometime ago you asked me,” said Mr. Robinson,” how I accounted for our difficulty in making a correct estimate of the poetry of one’s own time. The question is a difficult one. I don’t even say that it has an answer. But the solution of the thing seems to me to be related to what I said about the quality of finality that seems to exist in all real poetry. Finality seems always to have had a way of not obtruding itself to any great extent.”

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