The integration of poetry and life may be the most important question of all.

Interesting aspects of life, beautiful, useless glimpses of life—is this poetry? And the rest of it, life, as useful, as lived, or as the subject of philosophy or science, is this the life which is not poetry? Is this division valid?

Or is poetry a sub-category of philosophy in the division above, poetry not a “glimpse” of something “interesting and useless,” but rather a unique and useful branch of life understanding itself (philosophy)?

Or is this division not valid at all, since both sides are made of life, and poetry is something separate and apart?

And does poetry exist apart specifically in a world of words, interesting as a word-product, without any necessary connection to life?

And here we say “necessary,” because poetry may certainly use words which naturally signify life (because this is what words do) but in terms of what poetry is, it does not matter what is signified.

Yes. This is what poetry is: a word product without any necessary connection or reflection of life.

This is what Byron meant when he said:

“Poetry is nothing more than a certain dignity which life tries to take away.”

This is what Shelley meant when he said:

“A poet would do ill to embody his own conceptions of right and wrong, which are usually those of his place and time, in his poetical creations, which participate in neither.”

According to Shelley, poetry reflects the future: life which does not exist yet, and words have the unique ability to reflect life which is not life, what we sometimes refer to as the imagination.

The imaginative gardener can take what already exists: flowers and plants, and put together a garden which has never existed, portraying a unique dreamscape of beauty which is of this world, using the materials of this world, yet imaginatively invokes, and is, the future—a transformation of nature by poetic vision.

In so much as the gardener does this, the gardener is a poet. And in this way, anyone who transforms the material world is a poet. Note that we say transform, not merely reflect, or imitate—which is the traditional Aristotelian definition of poetry.

Aristotle’s definition is tepid, and Plato feared poetry precisely because his vision of it was greater, Plato deeply understanding poetry’s ability to not merely imitate, but transform. In fact, poetry fails at imitation (as Plato zealously pointed out) but poetry does something even more significant (and wonderful and dangerous): it creates the future, for good or ill.

Aristotle’s reasoning is so: poetry imitates good and bad people and it is perfectly reasonable and even good to do this, for how can we know the good if we don’t portray the bad? And out of this reasonable imitation springs the “freedom” to make art, and the justification for all destructive human freedom and license—since in Aristotle’s vision, the imitation of life is at the heart of all human making.

Aristotle’s famous qualification that poetry is more philosophical than history because poetry shows ‘what could be’ rather than ‘what is’ (as history does) is a monkey wrench; history and philosophy are both concerned (or should be concerned) with the truth; poetry is radically different; to give poetry (false) philosophical properties only furthers poetry’s (false) license to depict all sorts of bad things in the name of poetry’s freedom. The vision of Plato (which dares to radically critique poetry) is vastly different.

The wise know Aristotle’s oft-repeated and ubiquitous formula is wrong; the wise know that the whole Aristotelian project, adopted by the intellectual rabble of every cynical era, is misguided; and if we pay attention to visionaries like Plato and Shelley, to visionaries of the Renaissance and Romanticism, we will see that poetry’s power lies in making a new Good, not simply imitating whatever life happens to toss our way, or worse, abetting badness by cynically celebrating (with the cheering mob) its imitation in poetry, art, spectacle, learned books, etc.

As Poe points out, poetry is concerned with Taste, not Truth; and this quality, relegated wrongly to embellishment and triviality in our era, is a world of profound influence; Taste lives on the border of Truth, its province is Beauty, fed by Truth which is nearby, but Taste is grasped or understood by the instantaneous transmission of the Good (what we feel in our gut) which sidesteps the usual academic authorities—which is why academia balks at any consideration of Taste in cynical eras. “Give us the ugly truth,” scream the poets in cynical eras, “Beauty and Taste are old-fashioned and effete!”

Poets who cynically reject Poe’s poetry tend to also ignore Poe’s profound accomplishments in prose—for it is the whole of Poe’s project, seen and understood in its entirety, which proves the importance of qualities properly distributed and arranged across the whole range of reality’s projection in the transforming mind of the genius who serves humanity.

In our example of the gardener who profoundly transforms nature using her own materials, we find the poet, who is one step potentially more profound than the gardener, only because words can take and re-transform life in a manner potentially more significant than recombining the already existing beauty of flowers and plants.

Here is why 99% of poetry and its talk these days fails—poets and critics today assume a relationship, or an integration of life and poetry in which the two appear to serve each other, but do not: over here is some topic of life, interesting as a separate topic in a manner not connected to poetry whatsoever, and then over here we have the “poet” or the “poetry” and lo and behold! the two are yanked together in a manner which ostensibly brings more interest to both— but because the yanking together is utterly superficial, the interest is actually mitigated, and even dissolves, as the yanking exemplifies unconsciously a false idea of poetry. Poetry is, in the simplest sense, putting A next to B to create C, yes, but this alone is not enough, and this formula, when persisted in, quickly wears out its welcome. Arrangement requires a poetic purpose: the creation of a new Good, and without this purpose driving the project, the combining gesture is unfortunately a hollow gesture, and, problematically, not understood as such by the ignorant who merely go through the motions of  what they assume is poetic activity. Because they are gassing on about some interesting aspect of life, the ignorant think that it will be all the more interesting because of its mere proximity to po-biz. It is like when someone introduces their poem with a long story and then the poem is read, and we wish they had stopped with the story. This is the state of poetry today.

The true poet has ‘no story’ to introduce his poem—for the integration is in the poem, and when, in error, it is displayed as ‘story’ followed by ‘poem,’ it represents the unnecessary split which signals the falsity and the error, persisted in by those who naively think ‘story and poem’ is twice as good as ‘poem.’

We might be accused of this error: we earlier said Poe is understood in the entirety of his productions; so we appreciate his poems in light of his prose. No. The poem of Poe exists for its own sake, and succeeds on its own, without the help of anything else ‘to make it interesting,’ and this is precisely how we are defining poetry. The crowding in upon poetry of all these other matters ‘to make it interesting’ is the very thing which kills poetry, and it is done because of the Aristotle project which sees poetry imitating, and thus sharing its existence, with our place in the world at present, and also having a philosophical aspect which, in the same way, makes it necessary that poetry share the stage with all sorts of interests which are really beside the point, and hopelessly dilute the poetic enterprise.

Poetry is not a vehicle to make life more interesting. There are those who constantly seek to make life more interesting and these are those who are not poets and will never understand poetry and generally do not appreciate good taste. They are bored by the placidly beautiful, even though an appreciation of the placidly beautiful is the secret to heaven on earth.

The riot is even now at our doors; the useless activity which seeks the interesting and tramples on taste.

Life is coming for us.

Take my hand, poet.

Let us quietly flee.


  1. Mary Douglas said,

    November 3, 2014 at 9:27 pm

    This is an exquisite essay and I like it exceedingly. Naming and isolating what is missing soo that it can be recovered or at least so we can have the sense to not call by the same name the rose that is not a rose at all.

    Thank you, Thomas Graves.

    I have been working on a poem on the voice of Ethel Barrymore in a similar sense as having within it something entirely missing on the current scene though the wheels keep turning as if nothing is wrong…nothing is missing…it’s all “evolving”.

    So Jewel-Like In The Stirrups Flash The Outriders

    [to the immortal voice of Ethel Barrymore-
    to all the outriders of our language]

    jewel-like in the stirrups flash the outriders
    saving what can be saved of a forgotten line.
    fitful sleep the children near the hills
    that they forgot to climb.

    when will you return, if ever,
    my dissolving language, trebled with tears
    forever shining on the brink-
    so lost! for years.

    I hear it like a whispered snow
    of maytime petals recherché
    but who will clink the fairy tale chime
    against the painted backdrop of her moons in storage?
    portray: the silhouette of Juliet as once she was remembered

    when brief, the nightingale was in tune
    recedes into a ciphered gloom as
    the audience streams from the garish marquees
    pleased with themselves and

    taking aim at the sound of waters
    the sound of waters
    outcroppings of the stars

    beauty in exile far from the land
    and the promontories
    where the sea walls broke through.

    and it’s the odd story in an antique book
    no one ever looks at now.
    an actress floated in on

    white rose perfume, in rose fraught dresses
    stage post stage
    in the jeweled stirrups outriding,,,

    are you deriding, deriding
    the sound of her own language so out of style?
    where the heart was wedded to the

    sacred names-
    the Soul remains:
    impervious in her dreaming voice – outlawed-
    while the commonplace takes hold dressed
    up in preening gold these after years

    by foul-mouthed stage coach robbers
    technicoloured turncoat generations of
    the whatever.

    but are you sure she’s disappeared
    disposed of by the Huntsman; unanimous
    mirrors tuned to the unfair “Fair…”?

    I hear a murmuring lapping at the cliffs
    of ignominy, not dispossessed! angelic,
    wearing away at the stone:

    ah, the Mysteries; the voice unwearied, starry-
    recitative as scented rains:
    remains. Remains.
    synchronized to an inner flame.

    mary angela douglas 24 february 2014;rev. 3 march 2014;rev. 3 november 2014

    • thomasbrady said,

      November 5, 2014 at 9:40 am

      Thank you, Mary.

      There is nobility and passion in your work which is very inspiring.


  2. Mary Douglas said,

    November 5, 2014 at 1:08 pm

    It is exactly the quality signified by the very word “nobility” that I wanted most desperately to convey in trying to poetically delineate the quality of Ethel Barrymore’s voice and its affect on the listener and, as exactly the quality that has been lost (but not obliterated) in both the manner of reading poetry aloud nowadays and in the overall “permitted” content of poetry nowadays, the dimmed understanding of poetry, in the immortal, time spanning sense of it as the cry of the soul as closely as it can be uttered in human speech.

    Recently I read that as a young actress in theatre productions Ethel Barrymore’s audiences were reported (in newspaper reviews of the time) as weeping to such an extent at the sound of her voice that they lost entirely the thread of the play being presented. This phenomenon was noted and reported in many performances.

    I have always been inspired by her acting but in reading this I understood something irreplaceable has been lost that we must recover as we must recover our own lost selves. “The Voice That Is Great Within Us” has been eroded and eroded and trivialized by so much of our culture that it is beyond appalling and tantamounjt to atrocity.

    PLEASE LISTEN TO ETHEL BARRYMORE ON YOUTUBE READING JOHN MASEFIELD’S “THE WEST WIND” AND YOU WILL HEAR I AM CERTAIN, THIS QUALITY (“the warm wind, the west wind full of birds cries”…) you can hear the birds cries in her voice.

    It was set to music by Lionel Barrymore (her brother). I feel though I can’t document it, that her reading of this poem was also very personally a lament for her brother John Barrymore who wrecked his soul, his life and his immense Shakespearian talent through alcoholism and whom she was always grieving for, as was Lionel.

    I also want to say about my poem that when I wrote about the “whatever” generations this was not a put down by any means. I mean that as a symbol and a sign that generations (in themselves, as individuals, deep) are being cheated out of this noble heritage that belongs to them AND OUT OF (THUSLY) THEIR OWN NOBILITY.

    The work that you are largely doing Thomas Graves, in this blogsite has also the quality of nobility as do many of your phrases and your essays and I cannot take it lightly because truly, in the landscape of American poetry at this time in our history, you are a golden voice in the wilderness and I truly hope you do not feel alone in what you are doing but can feel at your side the countless poets that have gone before you- to put it in an old fashioned way – in this noble strain.

    Mary Angela Douglas

    P.S. I would also recommend to everyone Ethel Barrymore’s performances in the films A Portrait of Jennie (especially in the scenes where she is encouraging the young starving artist) and in the film “The Three Loves.”

  3. Frank Avon said,

    November 6, 2014 at 12:01 am

    Sir Thomas Brady, once again your essay asks the right questions, raises the right issues, challenges us poetry-lovers (and -writers) to explore our roles in the universe of literature, indeed the universe, our lives.

    This time, however, I have to worry about one point – perhaps irrelevant, but perhaps all-encompassing. Though you ‘define’ poetry quite convincingly, you also seem to associate it with ‘beauty’ and ‘taste.’ For example, in your concluding statements, you bring the association of poetry, beauty, and taste to the foreground: you speak of ‘those who are not poets and will never understand poetry and generally do not appreciate good taste. They are bored by the placidly beautiful, even though an appreciation of the placidly beautiful is the secret to heaven on earth. / The riot is even now at our doors; the useless activity which seeks the interesting and tramples on taste.’

    My worry is that these terms (‘beauty’ and ‘taste’), in the past century or so, have been preempted by the academic community (e.g., writing workshops and college/university English departments). Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been a loyal member and supporter of both. But, regrettably, both agencies have tended to establish a self-defined elite. To them, beauty is identified with craftsmanship, that is, the implementation of certain rigorous rules, whether derived from tradition or from principles of modernism. Taste tends to be the appreciation of a certain kind of poetry, that which puts a premium on subtlety, obliqueness, obscurity, even idiosyncrasy. Metaphoric progression supplants logical and linear coherence; indeed, the subjects of the metaphors themselves are often unclear, unstated, or non-existent. Therefore, the ‘poet’ has become a pariah to ordinary readers.

    As you so persuasively maintain, readers have often turned to entertainment, amusement, distraction – not thought-provoking but thoughtless, in several sense of that term. In my opinion, one of the goals of writing workshops and English departments should be to universalize reading and writing, including the reading and writing of poetry – especially the reading and writing of poetry. As Billy Collins has made clear, such universality requires that poetry, on some level, be accessible to the Common Reader. One has only to read extensively in contemporary poetry ‘reviews,’ or to examine the contents of the series ‘Best American Poetry,’ to determine that most poetry produced by faculty, graduates, and students of most writing workshops and promoted by many English professors is oblique, obscure, or indeed idiosyncratic. My rough estimate is that in the BAM series, since its inception in 1988, only ten percent is accessible to the Common Reader. Maybe I’m being too harsh a critic, but I’ve read every poem in ever volume and I rarely find more than half a dozen or so that I consider genuinely appealing poetry. (The most recent volume does some better; Billy Collins’ volume considerably better.)

    I’m not implying, of course, that your sense of beauty and taste are to be identified with these ‘professional’ uses of the terms. I simply want to assure that ‘beauty’ not be too narrowly defined and that ‘taste’ not be limited to an elitist conception. After all, the beauty of poetry is not confined to the merely beautiful; ‘beauty that is truth’ (Keats) is often about the ugly, the dreadful, the vicious; for example, war, death, suffering, slums, disease, depression, even hatred and violence. I guess I would prefer the term ‘insightful,’ even meaningful (wow, I just alienated most modernists, didn’t I?). These lines from one of the responses to you essay, ‘Love Is Curiosity,’ may also be an apt characterization of genuine poetry:

    Somehow beautiful, somehow austere,
    Somehow fearful, but a beautiful fear,
    And you stop. Wonder. Lust. Stare.
    But there’s nothing to ponder. There’s nothing to see.
    Love is only curiosity.

    Poetry is curiosity – another way of seeing, another way of being. Hence, poets may indeed by the ‘unacknowledged legislators’ of the future. But only if their works are read by literate people – read, shared, celebrated – not avoided and denied, as so much of ‘modern’ poetry is.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    November 6, 2014 at 12:40 pm


    Thank you for your long thoughtful response!

    You say beauty and taste should not be limited, but the limits are imposed by the qualities themselves, not by the critics or poets or workshop teachers. Narrow beauty is universal beauty by necessity. You and I will not be pleased similarly by every little thing. Poe valued an “undercurrent of meaning.” So I don’t reject nuance per se. But why should the poet add to the ugliness in the world? That’s the question. I could see writing a poem called “The Beautiful Slum.” That might work.

  5. Mr. Woo said,

    September 11, 2016 at 7:48 pm

    “…an appreciation of the placidly beautiful is the secret to heaven on earth.”

    This feels right to me on a gut level.

    The poetry and poets I love seek to transform human life. And not some silly transformation like, “I use to be an accountant but now I’m a kayaking instructor.” Although I’m all for that sort of thing, as well.

    Transforming poetry for me is more of an invitation to slow down and go deeper into your own life, as it is. When you bring more awareness to yourself and the world the placid beauty of it all becomes evident.

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