What’s It All About, Ralph?

Midway through the first semester of my MFA, I seem to have hit a slump. Not horrible–just not the zealous enthusiasm with which I seemed to attack the first few months. I have just been getting up early and sitting down in the chair to write anyway–even if no material I really liked seemed to be coming. As I said before, I am in this for the long haul. So, observing myself and learning to deal with all the ups and downs productively is part of the bigger lesson of this program for me.

Another tactic that sometimes helps me get things flowing again is to revisit an old favorite. Ralph Waldo Emerson is eminently quotable; his essay The Poet reads like a poem in itself. It is remarkable to read some of his thoughts and realize certain conditions in poetry are hardly new or unique. So, I pulled a few excerpts from this 1844 text that seem to be as relevant to contemporary poetry as they were to poetry back then.

Notwithstanding the necessity to be published, adequate expression is rare.

The sign and credentials of a poet are, that he announces that which no man foretold.

For, the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet.

Of course, the value of genius to us is in the veracity of its report. Talent may frolic and juggle; genius realizes and adds.

A beauty, not explicable, is dearer than a beauty which we can see to the end of.

The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!

The vocabulary of an omniscient man would embrace words and images excluded from polite conversation. What would be base, or even obscene, to the obscene, becomes illustrious, spoken in a new connexion of thought.

Every word was once a poem.

This insight, which expresses itself by what I called Imagination, is a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees, by sharing the path, or circuit of things through forms, and so making them translucid to others.

So the poet’s habit of living should be set on a key so low and plain, that the common influences should delight him. His cheerfulness should be the gift of the sunlight; the air should suffice for his inspiration, and he should be tipsy with water.

But the quality of the imagination is to flow, and not to freeze.

We do not, with sufficient plainness, or sufficient profoundness, address ourselves to life, nor dare we chaunt our own times and social circumstance. If we filled the day with bravery, we should not shrink from celebrating it.

Art is the path of the creator to his work.

The poet pours out verses in every solitude. Most of the things he says are conventional, no doubt; but by and by he says something which is original and beautiful. That charms him. He would say nothing else but such things. In our way of talking we say, “That is yours, this is mine;” but the poet knows that it is not his; that it is as strange and beautiful to him as to you…

Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say, “It is in me, and shall out.”

…wherever is danger, and awe, and love, there is Beauty, plenteous as rain, shed for thee, and though thou shouldest walk the world over, thou shalt not be ale to find a condition inopportune or ignoble.