Poets on Poetry

‘ I think it’s powerful because it helps people to practice empathy. Also it allows people to observe someone practicing vulnerability. A lot of inhumanity will occur without empathy and vulnerability.’  Roger Robinson  

If prose is a house, poetry is a man on fire running quite fast through it.’ Anne Carson

“It would be nice to know what the hell one is doing once in a while, but on the other hand isn’t that why people keep doing any kind of art? Because you never quite get there. The gesture and the approach is the point: There is no there to get to. I think that’s what people respond to when you connect with a piece of writing: all of what’s contained in that reach towards something ungraspable.” Karen Solie

” My chief aim is to make a poem. You make it for yourself firstly, and then if other people want to join in then there we are.” – R. S. Thomas ”

‘If you imagine the poem is made of clay. You’re working and working the clay. Eventually it’s going to set. It’s going to go hard. And even though you want to change it, it’s not going to do anything. It’s solid, dried-out clay at the end. That’s what happens to the poem. You’re desperately re-working it until it gets to that stage where it’s too far in the past for you to change again. It’s already been said: a poem isn’t finished; it’s abandoned. That’s true’.
John Glenday

‘What is happening to me, allowing for lies and exaggerations which I try to avoid, goes into my poems. I don’t think my experiences are clarified or made beautiful for myself or anyone else, they are just there in whatever form I can find them. . .My formal “stance” is found at the crossroads where what I know and can’t get meets what is left of that I know and can bear without hatred. . .It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time’ Frank O’Hara

‘Poetry is emotion put into measure. The emotion must come by nature, but the measure can be acquired by art.’
Thomas Hardy

Pablo Neruda– ‘I take great vacations outside of time’

Kim Addonizio– “Writing is an ongoing fascination and challenge, as well as being the only form of spirituality I can consistently practice. I started as a poet and will always return to poetry—both reading and writing it—for that sense of deep discovery and communion I find there. There are only two useful rules I can think of for aspiring writers: learn your craft, and persist. The rest, as Henry James said, is the madness of art.”

Sophie Collins  ‘I think the process (writing poems)  has always remained the same, but I’ve now got a better sense of what works for me, and of my own tastes. Writing well seems to be about learning what you like in more detail and developing a fiercer conviction. In this sense you are the only reader that matters. You slowly dismantle received ideas of what good writing looks like, find the writers you admire and become confident with what you (want to) make. Of course, the underside of this developing consciousness involves periods of self-doubt, when your work doesn’t seem to match your own standards, but these are vital too.’


‘One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment.’ –Hart Crane

‘Poetry is a necessity. It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free, and declare them so.’  CD Wright

Q. What does poetry offers that other mediums don’t?

Poetry is perhaps the instrument able to play more parts of a life at once. It draws from the feelings and from the mind, from this moment’s physical heft and physical fragrance, from one person’s tilt of memory and the world’s shared stories, from biology, physics, cooking, from language’s own hidden knowledge and from music itself. Poems’ statements are multiple, kaleidoscopic. In the registries of grief, they show us that beauty still exists. Amid happiness, they remind us of longing and transience.

Jane Hirshfield

Q.  (The Compass)   Do you think there’s a parallel need, between the photographer and the poet, to preserve? I’m thinking of the almost Gothic conflict with the dead that’s in some of your poems, and the sense that contemporary life is increasingly transient. How does this feed into your work alongside your ideas about how poems are engineered?

I think it’s exactly the same urge. It’s what Philip Larkin used to say about that urge to arrest time, to save things from the flow of time—which often means loss—and to salvage them from that river, save them and isolate them, put them in an artistic context which preserves. I think by putting frames around things you falsify them. As soon as something goes into a poem it’s not that thing anymore. The whole of language is really an extended metaphor for reality—the way we can gesture towards reality—but it’s not reality, it’s always going to be a separate thing. That urge is there but once you make art out of it, it’s transformed completely from the original thing you were trying to say.
Sinéad Morrissey

Vassar Miller – Poetry, like all art, has a trinitarin function: creative, redemptive, and sanctifying. It is creative because it takes the raw materials of fact and feeling and makes them into that which is neither fact nor feeling. Redemptive because it transforms pain, ugliness of life into joy, beauty. Sanctifying because it gives the transitory a relative form of meaning.


There’s only two ways to write poetry and the best way is always the third.
Ian Duhig

Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words. –Robert Frost

“A poet is a man who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times.”
Randall Jarrell

Adrian Blevins
– ‘I think the most important thing any poet or writer can do to improve his or her  odds of writing a good poem of any type is to learn continuously how to pay  attention. Poetry is not about how we feel, of course. It’s about how we feel  about how we feel. Knowing how we feel about how we feel requires an almost  ungodly attentiveness or consciousness—an otherworldly watchfulness and  vigilance.’

“If a poem is any good, you can repeat it to yourself as if it were written by somebody else. The compltedness frees you from it and it from you. You can read and reread it without feeling self-indulgent: whatever it was in you that started the writing has got beyond you.”
Seamus Heaney, ‘Stepping Stones’, Faber.


“It may be that poetry makes life’s nebulous events tangible to me and restores their detail; or conversely, that poetry brings forth the intangible quality of incidents which are all too concrete and circumstantial. Or each on specific occasions, or both all the time.” Frank O’Hara.

‘ Poetry’s social function comes not from what it means but from what it is. Its utility is to shake us out of our standard American buy-stuff-and-watch-TV half life. A poem’s content matters very little to that utility. ‘ Daisy Fried

You should write, first of all, to please yourself. You shouldn’t care a damn about anybody else at all. But writing can’t be a way of life – the important part of writing is living. You have to live in such a way that your writing emerges from it.”
― Doris Lessing,

“A poet’s work—to name the unnamable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.” the poet Baal in Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’

‘ Every poem is an answer to the question what is poetry for.’ Jamie McKendrick.

‘If you will stay close to nature, to its simplicity, to the small things hardly noticeable, those things can unexpectedly become great and immeasurable.’ ―   Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a young poet.

“Poetry doesn’t seek to be a commodity; it doesn’t change history or events – it changes people.” Eavan Boland.


‘Prose is draughts, poetry is chess. Chess is four dimensions…, the additional  element of sound, of cadence and phrasing’. Andrew Greig

‘ What’s the reason to write poetry? It’s not a hobby. It’s one of the major ways of keeping the world human. We have almost nothing else, no craft that deals specifically with feeling. The novel to some extent, but it embodies a different kind of empathy than a poem does, and I suppose film to a degree, but motion pictures are only able to show you the outside of what’s happening. Poetry works on the inside of what’s happening.’  Jack Gilbert

You have to have a healthy ego, I think, to dare to create; or  at least be able to silence your inner critic for swaths of time. And I think  there are rare moments for most writers when the poem somehow comes out even  better than you had hoped and when you do have this surge of energy and think—”I  am a genius!” But then there is the other 98% of the time, when you are  disgruntled with everything you’ve ever written, or despair of writing a poem  again, and think, ”I’m an imposter!” Maybe you think both these things in  the same day.     Beth Gylys

‘Things will start to drip into my mind. You have to have faith in that process. Having times of emptiness is part of it.’ Kathleen Jamie


‘One of the ridiculous aspects of being a poet is the huge gulf between how seriously we take ourselves and how generally we are ignored by everybody else.’ Billy Collins

Sharon Olds in conversation with Michael Laskey,2009

‘I love odd words. A long time ago I wouldn’t use them, because I would like to have readers who have never gone to university or even high school. I don’t want them to look at it and, if there’s a weird word in the first line, throw it across the room, as I might in the same position. But then I gave in to my love for strange words. There’s a charm in that, maybe even literally a charm, like a good luck weirdness.’ Poets.org

Q.  What is your advice to writers at the beginning of their careers?

There’s a nice phrase which applies -I used to hear it in Dublin. “If a thing’s worth doing it’s worth doing badly”. So just not to be perfectionist. Because that’s what really demoralizes young writers, that sort of perfectionism. It can lead to silence, to self-reproach, to a sort of giving up.
Eavan Boland

‘A poet cannot refuse language…But the poet can re-fuse the language given to him or her, bend and torque it into an instrument for connection instead of dominance and appartite’  Adrienne Rich, The Guardian, 26 April 2003

Les Murray, 2010, ‘ ..that’s when poetry seems to work best, when it takes in your dreaming mind, your intellect and the physical body. The best work in any field of art seems to work on that basis because it is a model of how humans truly think.”

From an Interview with Ian Parks. ‘ Finally, Ian, would it be asking too much for you to say what you feel is the function of poetry at the beginning of  the 21st century?’ 

IP     No, it wouldn’t be asking too much [laughs]. A friend of mine whose opinion I value greatly asked me the other day if I felt guilty for deciding to live the life of a poet rather than channelling my energies – such as they are – into more secular pursuits. Well, it started me thinking, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d feel guilty if I hadn’t made the decision, quite early on, to write. There’s this resilience in the human spirit that seems to have survived everything the last century threw at it in terms of war, atrocity, prejudice, inequality, loss of faith. The real threat now is the insidious growth of materialism and along with it the banal and manipulative language of advertising. I think we must always be on the lookout for ways of countering this language of the marketplace. Poetry is good for that. It’s written by the heart, for the heart.

From an  interview with Bethany Merchant, 5th May 2000 which first appeared in New England Poetry Review (USA)

David Harsent from an interview in the Guardian 2005.

‘Poetry’s…. deep and crucial, or it can be. I think all the arts are important to a society’s health. Eliot said that without vision the people perish and I think that’s true. It would be interesting to know what a society bereft of arts would be like. Extremely unpleasant, I would think. Poetry is important for the same reason that the arts in general are important. They tell us how we live.’

“When one burns one’s bridges, what a very nice fire it makes,” Dylan Thomas

A.L Kenedy on writing, Guardian 9th Jan 2012

‘ I have one very beautiful thing in my favour – I write, I do something creative. This means that when all is darkness, it isn’t. It can’t be. The way of life I have chosen allows me to take – sometimes quickly, sometimes not – any negative element and use it, change it at some level. I don’t at all subscribe to the idea that the ardent typist should dress in mourning and cultivate fake doom – that’s a form of self-harm and a waste of energy. Life will inevitably have its bleak spots without our help. Meanwhile, it can be cheering to consider that, if we survive, we’ll maybe get a sonnet on divorce, or a character with toothache, a novel which can be properly lyrical about grief, or a joke about colitis. There may be times when we end up just sticking our tongues out at reality and times when we can connect with the human condition as we never have before, maybe both. We may even have the unlooked-for pleasure of being useful to someone else who draws strength from what we’ve built. Above all, the pure act of writing – the truth that it is still there for you and you for it – is a wonder. And it need have nothing to do with the details of your life. Within it, you can be away from everything and saying out new dreams, just because you can, because human beings do sing for other human beings and make unnecessary beauties. Onwards.’

Owen Sheers

‘I genuinely think that at the end of your writing life, if you can say that you’ve written two or three true poems, that’s a pretty good hit rate.’
From an interview in the Independent, November 2011.

‘The great thing about the game of poetry is that it’s always your turn. ‘ Billy Collins

‘A word after a word after a word is power’  Margaret Atwood. 

‘A poem is still a magical thing; I never know where it comes from, but what I do know is that, at its best, poetry can make us all feel part of each other; it can remind us to care.”  Roger McGough.


Paul Farley in the Guardian, April 3 2010

  I’ve always loved that feeling when an image rises up unbidden. You’re writing and you realise, that’s why I remembered this all these years. I remember a very early poem I wrote. I had a memory from childhood, the windows in this department store in Liverpool being whitewashed. I was on the bus with my dad and it gave me this lonely, baleful feeling I couldn’t account for. And it would come back to me periodically. Then in my late 20s I was sitting writing this poem, and it just snapped into place. I’ve learnt to recognise that delicious, slotting-into-place feeling.’

‘A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.’ – Maya Angelou

‘Writing poetry is the best way I know of untying the knot of obsession. It’s cheaper than therapy and better for you than getting drunk.’  Gwyneth Lewis, PBS Bulletin, Summer 2003

From an interveiw with Les Murray in Poetry Daily ‘ I used to say, “I don’t believe in using poetry as therapy.” But I tell you, if you get sick enough you’ll use anything you’ve got as therapy. I used poetry as a kind of plunger to dip up old bad stuff and examine it. ‘

From an interview with Robin Robertson in openlettersmonthly

‘It is a strange state of openness that one wants to achieve, where the subconscious comes nosing out of the dark, and when the words start to dance all by themselves.’

‘… poems will attend to certain buried concerns and anxieties in much the same way as dreams do.’

‘…we are all surely looking for patterns and rhythms of beauty and significance that may help us to make sense of what we experience’.

‘Poems are accretions of words and phrases and images adrift in my conscious and subconscious mind looking for partners, for a home, for completion. Some are fresh; some have been waiting for decades. I love the urgency they have when they meet their new family.’

‘Writing poetry is like finding your way home and you didn’t know you were lost.’
Diane Lockward


‘The making of poems is mysteriously tied up with not-knowing, with willing ignorance and an openness to mutation.’ Tony Hoagland, American Poetry Review, 2003′

Alice Oswald.
From a Guardian article, 12/12/11 

“I think it’s often assumed that the role of poetry is to comfort, but for me, poetry is the great unsettler. It questions the established order of the mind. It is radical, by which I don’t mean that it is either leftwing or rightwing, but that it works at the roots of thinking. It goes lower than rhetoric, lower than conversation, lower than logic, right down to the very faint honest voice at the bottom of the skull. You can hear that voice in a letter written by the 16th‑century poet Thomas Wyatt to his son: “No doubt in any thing you do, if you ask yourself or examine the thing for yourself afore you do it, you shall find, if it be evil, a repining against it. My son, for our Lord’s love, keep well that repining …”

That is the best instruction you could ever give a poet: whether you’re examining a bad line in a poem or a bad motive for action, keep well your repining – meaning don’t ignore the honest muttering in your head”.

‘The dominant art forms of our day—film, video, architecture—are collaborative arts; they require a team of makers. Poems are always made alone, somewhere out on the edge of things, and if they succeed they are saturated with the texture of the uniquely felt life.’

Mark Doty

I write poetry in order to live more fully.
Judith Rodriguez

ee cummings, from letter from a high-school editor.

‘A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feeling through words. This may sound easy. It isn’t. A lot of people think or believe or know they feel-but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling-not knowing or believing or thinking.

Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.

To be nobody-but-yourself-in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.

As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time-and whenever we do it, we’re not poets.

If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.

And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world-unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.

Does this sound dismal? It isn’t. It’s the most wonderful life on earth. Or so I feel.’

‘ For the world to be interesting you have to be manipulating it all the time” Brian Eno


There are many times when I want to hammer the head. Other times I want to sleep on the hammer.  – CD Wright

‘It is the job of poetry to clean up our word-clogged reality by creating silences around things.’ Stephen Mallarme.


‘There have been times when my spirit, so dejected, almost gave up the quest,other times when it was proud,triumphant. So it has been from the very start, never finding peace with itself,always doubting the worth of what it makes.’ Basho.

‘To have great poets there must be great audiences too.’ Walt Whitman.

‘…there are of course other qualities a poem must have if it is to draw one back, if it is to excite many minds, if it is to prove memorable. But I believe it is the sudden feeling of acceleration in one’s attention that first announces the presence of a true poem; and first causes it, in Leopardi’s phrase, to ‘flutter the soul’.

Maurice Riordan

Diane Ackerman.  “A poem tells us about the subtleties of mood for which we have no labels” .

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