The Best Things Ever Said about Poets and Poetry

If a man comes to the door of poetry untouched by the madness of the Muses, believing that technique alone will make him a good poet, he and his sane compositions never reach perfection, but are utterly eclipsed by the performances of the inspired madman.

 

Socrates (469-399 B.C.)

 

 

 

Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.

 

Poets utter great and wise things which they do not themselves understand.

 

Plato (427?-347? B.C.)

 

 

 

History describes what has happened, poetry what might. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and serious than history; for poetry speaks of what is universal, history of what is particular.

 

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.)

 

 

 

Democritus maintains that there can be no great poet without a spice of madness.

 

Cicero (106-43 B.C.)

 

 

 

Poets were the first teachers of mankind.

 

No poems can please for long or live that are written by water-drinkers.

 

Horace (65-8 B.C.)

 

 

 

It is easier to write a mediocre poem than to understand a good one.

 

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

 

 

 

Modesty is a virtue not often found among poets, for almost every one of them thinks himself the greatest in the world.

 

Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616)

 

 

 

If you have so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry . . . yet thus much curse I must send you in the behalf of all poets, that while you live, you live in love, and never get favour for lacking skill of a sonnet; and, when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph.

 

Orator fit, poeta nascitur. [An orator is made; a poet is born.]

 

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586)

 

 

 

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven,

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

 

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

 

 

 

Poetry is a counterfeit creation, and makes things that are not, as though they were.

 

John Donne (1571-1631)

 

 

 

Poetry is music in words; and music is poetry in sound: both excellent sauce, but they have lived and died poor that made them their meat.

 

Thomas Fuller (1608-1661)

 

 

 

None was ever a great poet that applied himself to anything else.

 

Sir William Temple (1628-1699)

 

 

 

A copy of verses kept in the cabinet, and only shown to a few friends, is like a virgin much sought after and admired; but when printed and published, is like a common whore, whom anybody may purchase for half a crown.

 

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745)

 

 

 

Turn pimp, flatterer, quack, lawyer, parson, be a chaplain to an atheist, or stallion to an old woman, anything but a poet; for a poet is worse, more servile timorous and fawning than any I have named.

 

William Congreve (1670-1729)

 

 

The great rule of verse is to be musical.

 

 

Sir, I admit your general rule,

That every poet is a fool;

But you yourself may serve to show it,

That every fool is not a poet.

 

Alexander Pope (1699-1744)

 

 

 

To a poet nothing can be useless.

 

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

 

 

 

Poetry is much an easier and more agreeable species of composition than prose, and could a man live by it, it were no unpleasant employment to be a Poet.

 

Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774)

 

 

 

We poets in our youth begin in gladness,

But thereof cometh in the end despondency and madness.

 

 

Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.

 

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

 

 

 

I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; prose—words in their best order; poetry—the best words in their best order.

 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

 

 

 

Poetry is the universal language which the heart holds with nature and itself. He who has a contempt for poetry, cannot have much respect for himself, or for any thing else.

 

William Hazlitt (1778-1830)

 

 

 

Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.

 

Poetry is a mirror which makes beautiful that which is distorted.

 

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)

 

 

 

Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by singularity—it should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts and appear almost a remembrance.

 

Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself, but with its subject.

 

John Keats (1795-1821)

 

 

 

Poetry is the rhythmical creation of beauty in words.

 

A poet should be treated with leniency and, even when damned, should be damned with respect.

 

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1840)

 

 

 

Great prose, of equal elevation, commands our respect more than great verse…. The poet often only makes an irruption, like a Parthian, and is off again, shooting while he retreats; but the prose writer has conquered like a Roman, and settled colonies.

 

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

 

 

 

To have great poets, there must be great audiences, too.

 

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

 

 

 

Always be a poet, even in prose.

 

Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)

 

 

 

If . . . it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?

 

 

I reckon—When I count at all—

First—Poets—Then the Sun—

Then Summer—Then the Heaven of God—

And then—the List is done—

 

But, looking back—the First so seems

To Comprehend the Whole—

The Others look a needless Show—

So I write—Poets—All—

 

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

 

 

 

War talk by men who have been in war is interesting, but moon talk by a poet who has not been in the moon is dull.

 

Mark Twain (1835-1910)

 

 

 

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

 

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

 

 

 

A poet can survive anything but a misprint.

 

All bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.

 

Oscar Wilde (1856-1900)

 

 

 

The true poet is all the time a visionary and whether with friends or not, as much alone as a man on his death bed.

 

Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.

 

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

 

 

 

Poetry is a language which tells us, through a more or less emotional reaction, something that cannot be said.

 

Edwin Arlington Robinson (1869-1935)

 

 

 

 

A poem is never finished, merely abandoned.

 

Paul Valéry (1871-1945)

 

 

 

A poem should not mean.

But be.

 

Archibald MacLeish (1872-1982)

 

 

 

Free verse is like free love; it is a contradiction in terms.

 

Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.

 

G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

 

 

 

Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.

 

Poets are like baseball pitchers. Both have their moments. The intervals are the tough things.

 

A poem is never a put-up job so to speak. It begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with.

 

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

 

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

 

 

 

The crown of literature is poetry. It is its end and aim. It is the sublimest activity of the human mind. It is the achievement of beauty and delicacy. The writer of prose can only step aside when the poet passes.

 

W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965)

 

 

 

Poets are born, not paid.

 

Wilson Mizner (1876-1933)

 

 

 

Publishing a volume of verse is like dropping a rose-petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.

 

Don Marquis (1878-1937)

 

 

 

A poet looks at the world the way a man looks at a woman.

 

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

 

 

 

A poem is true if it hangs together. Information points to something else. A poem points to nothing but itself.

 

E. M. Forster (1879-1970)

 

 

 

A poet more than thirty years old is simply an overgrown child.

 

H. L. Mencken (1880-1956)

 

 

 

It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.

 

William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)

 

 

 

As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career, but a mug’s game. No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.

 

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.

 

Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood.

 

T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)

 

 

 

The poet is a liar who always speaks the truth.

 

The worst fate of a poet is to be admired without being understood.

 

Jean Cocteau (1889?-1963)

 

 

 

To be a poet is a condition rather than a profession.

 

There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.

 

Robert Graves (1895-1985)

 

 

 

Poetry is, above all, music.

 

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986)

 

 

 

Poets aren’t very useful

Because they aren’t consumeful or very produceful.

 

Ogden Nash (1902-1971)

 

 

 

It is a sad fact about our culture that a poet can earn much more money writing and talking about his art than he can by practicing it.

 

W. H. Auden (1907-1973)

 

 

 

You don’t have to suffer to be a poet. Adolescence is enough suffering for anyone.

 

John Ciardi (1916-1986)

 

 

 

A poet is someone who stands outside in the rain hoping to be struck by lightning.

 

James Dickey (1923-1997)

 

 

 

For me, poetry is an evasion of the real job of writing prose.

 

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

 

 

 

I believe technique is important. If most people who called themselves poets were tightrope-walkers, they’d be dead.

 

Michael Longley (b. 1939)

 

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