Poetry Notes Here and There

Criteria for Praise/Dispraise

Jakob Rosenberg, in his A. W. Mellon lectures in the Fine Arts, describes several characteristics of masterful painting considered essential by Giorgio Vasari. I see no reason why these characteristics should not apply to poetry: “power,” “boldness,” “ease or facility that shows no trace of labor” (cf. Yeats’s “Adam’s Curse”), “richness and variety in form and invention,” “delicacy,” “flexibility.”

Rosenberg goes on to quote Roger de Piles, whose approach to the works of Raphael, Titian, Rubens strikes me as highly accurate: “…I do everything in my power to fathom the rare qualities of these great painters.” I can think of no reason why this degree of engagement should be limited to the visual arts. And again I reflect on this sobering advice, attributed to Edgar Degas: “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.”

We’ve become routinely accustomed to the short range, with such heavy reliance on the eye, nodding our heads, satisfactorily confined to mute apprehension.

Positive criteria (formulated from/endorsed by decades of varied study) tested while I read and rank poetry:

–delicate embracing of language/tradition (purpose, form, rhetoric, “feat of association”)

–impulse of language: where language leads (mystery/complexity of life)


–our relation to language (cf. Lewis Thomas’s “Social Talk”)

–evolves the unexpected (“no tricks”)

–shaped to last, skillfully rendered (crafted and infused)

–urgency: longing to speak and be heard (“effort at speech”)

–imaginative offering

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