Poetry Corner

by Arthur Mampel

Two major poets were together one evening, Robert Lowell and John Berryman. Lowell asked Berryman to give him the six best lines in English poetry. At first Berryman resisted and called Lowell’s challenge absurd, insisting such a task was impossible. But as the night deepened Berryman’s resistance wore down. Finally, he confessed to Lowell six lines found in William Butler Yeats’ poem, The Wild Swans at Coole:

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable stream or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

In his book, “Yeats at Work,” Curtiss Bradford shows how hard Yeats labored over his poetry. He made endless revisions. Here is an early draft of those lines:

They drift there lover by unwearied lover
Companions float around them
Passion or conquest dip in the streams as they will
Attend upon them still
Their hearts have not grown cold…”

(Some earlier drafts were more awkward and less finished than this example.)

It has been my experience that poetry does not come quickly. It may—but usually not. Yeats thought poetry was more perspiration than inspiration. Poetry is a craft that takes you over. It is jealous and possessive of your time. It is addictive and will not let you alone. The Muse is not easy to live with. She will insist on your full attention. She will not even speak to you until you have spent time doing nothing. Idleness and silence are necessary for poetry. Rejections by the magazines are part of the discipline. Stay! ...when tested by this or other criticism. Trust your instinctual feelings. As Theodore Roethke said, “We think by feeling, what is there to know?”