Excerpted from “Writing Badly” in “The Virtues of Poetry” by James Longenbach.
Recall the imagist Pound proclaiming that a good poem contains “absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.” Compare this highly compressed passage from the final movement of The Wasteland –
“What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
– with a passage from “The Dry Salvages,” the third of the Four Quartets, written twenty years later. The quartets contain scattered moments of compressed intensity, but these moments are set against passages of rhythmically flaccid and imagistically imprecise writing – passages that, in the context of the quartets ultimately feel more unsettling that the intensities.
“It seems, as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.
The moments of happiness—not the sense of well-being,
Fruition, fulfilment, security or affection,
Or even a very good dinner, but the sudden illumination—
We had the experience but missed the meaning,
And approach to the meaning restores the experience
In a different form, beyond any meaning
We can assign to happiness. I have said before
That the past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations.”
One can imagine how quickly Pound’s blue pencil would have excised this passage from The Wasteland, the phrase “even a very good dinner” pushing him probably into despair.
Read the complete excerpt: writing_badly
Thanks to everyone who contributed to a truly super session on “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker” on Thursday, February 23. This is an early reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing more of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our March session. On March 23 we will focus on “The Dry Salvages” and “Little Gidding.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.
Please note the following changes to the 2017 schedule: T’ang Dynasty (618–907) poetry has been moved from June to November 23. Our customary summer “free-for-all” session of everyone bringing a favourite poem(s) or excerpt to read and discuss has been moved from July 27 to June 22. On July 27, Josie will lead a reading and discussion on one of the leading lights in the “confessional” school of poetry, the brilliant, but troubled Anne Sexton.