Monday, July 03, 2006

Delmore Schwartz on a Problem of Poetry

Delmore Schwartz on a problem of poetry:

One of these problems concerns itself with how much poetry one ought to write and how much one ought to publish. After much reflection, I’ve decided that one ought to write as much as possible and publish as little as possible. The latter conclusion follows from the glum fact that most poetry is likely to be bad, if judged by any standards which would justify the assertion that some poetry is good. On the other hand, one ought to write as much as possible banking on the law of averages because, among other reasons, there is no way of telling in advance whether the poem one writes is going to be good. Moreover, the writing of bad poems is for many poets a way of arriving at the writing of good poems. By publishing only work which one is reasonably comfortable about, or work which is in an idiom one no longer cultivates, one avoids the remorse of looking at one’s bad poems in print and the paralyzing effects which may ensue. Horace advises one to wait for nine years before publishing a poem, and a very gifted modern poet told me that it is best to publish as much as possible, for one can always write more poems. Both pieces of advice may be good for some poets or good under certain conditions, but for most poets to wait, to be patient, to re-write and to keep looking at one’s poems is the best possible method of procedure, if one is interested in writing good poems rather than in being regarded as a poet. There is nothing wrong in wanting to be known as a poet, but the desire to write good poems is more fruitful in the long run.

From Delmore Schwartz, “Poetry is its Own Reward” (1950); reproduced in The Ego is Always at the Wheel: Bagatelles (New Directions, 1986).

1 comment:

j-love said...

Fortunately or unfortunately in Canada it can take so long to get a poetry book published, we have plenty of time to change our minds about the work!

This of course doesn't account for self-publishing, or publishing in mags and zines and things in between... While I think that 8 or 9 years is too long, I do agree with Delmore Schwartz that it's aesthetically advantageous to sit with the poems awhile and work them hard before putting them out there.

Poetry is never static, but the downside of that is that a poet could spend a lifetime in a perpetual state of editing... I know I could!