Statement of Philosophy

A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.



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The Library

For those who may have visited this page before I have decided to change the format and gather all the non-fiction into a single list of works that are worth reading for people serious about writing aesthetic literature. While there was value to attempting dividing the list into categories, I always felt I was trying too hard to maintain categories rather than simply have a list of books worth reading, irrespective of their subject matter. — June 17, 2014
– modified, June 9, 2016

 

The purpose here is to be a collection of works that have more than casual value to the endeavor of writing literature. I let it build over time, and both adding and removing texts.

Since this is the library page of a blog on poetry, I start with poetic works worth having. In no way am I attempting anything comprehensive. After, I move to non-fiction. The titles collected are of various topics and various degrees of difficulty. But all I consider quite valuable to the endeavor of aesthetic literature (not just aesthetic poetry).

 

— page last modified Oct. 15, 2015

 



 

POETRY RECOMMENDATIONS:

Poetry Books Purchased Directly or Indirectly
Because of This Blog

That a book is not on this list means nothing. I am not a free spender when it comes to poetic works (or any works, for that matter). For one, I try not to buy them faster than I am reading them and right now my tendency is to concentrate more on filling in holes (or buying where my research is leading me) than on exploring. That a book is on this list, however, does mean something: as general policy I will not recommend something unless it is affirmatively something worth recommending.

 

Howe, Fanny.
Selected Poems (New California Poetry series, U. of California Press, 2000)
Among the most intriguing Selected/Collected that I have ever had the pleasure to meet. And one of the most intriguing first entrances into a writer's work that I have experienced in quite a while.
Imlah, Mick.
The Lost Leader (Faber and Faber, 2008)
I could not recommend a contemporary book more. I have not enjoyed a single book of poetry this much in long time.
Selected Poems (Faber and Faber, 2010)
Alan Hollinghurst's introduction opens with one of the saddest sentences in contemporary literature: "When Mick Imlah died, in January 2009, he was mourned as one of the outstanding British poets of our time." Only three books published, if you include the Selected. And they are a humbling measuring stick for everyone else. (If you are wondering why I do not have Birthmarks listed here, it is because I am saving it for when I am in need of a circe.)
Polley, Jacob.
The Havocs (Picador, 2012)
A second book, with some weaknesses, but in its explorations still above the majority of what is being peddled as "quality" in U.S. poetry culture. (And, yes, Polley is Brit.)
Riley, Atsuro.
Romey's Order (U. of Chicago Press, 2010)
As warning, it took me a few poems to get the feel of the field. And, arguably, the first poems are the weakest. But do not put it down too hastily or you will miss out on a very creative endeavor.
Schnackenberg, Gertrude.
The Throne of Labdacus (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2000)
A retelling of Oedipus, from the view of Apollo. Though, do not let that lead you into thinking it is either narrative or dramatic. It approaches the story through a more symbolic path. (I would think you need some familiarity with the Sophocles to fully engage it.)
Supernatural Love (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2000)
Collects her first three books: Portraits and Elegies, The Lamplit Answer, A Gilded Lapse of Time. I can't think of anything brief and witty to say except buy the book, accept my statement that Schnackenberg is a better writer than most Pulitzer winners of the last decades, and try to figure out why.

 

Other Contemporary Poetry Books Worth Your Time (books not prompted by the blog)

Keep in mind with this list that, the lists both above and below, relatively speaking, I do not read a lot of contemporary poetry, and most of what I do read I find to be quite average or worse. So even in my most generous mood, this list is going to be small. If I were to offer some notion of a bar they surpass, perhaps a good one would be that I would be confident teaching a class on creative writing from these works, and using them as positive examples, not negative. Perhaps another is simply that they rise cleanly above the great mass of indistinguishable mediocrity.

 

Jones, Rodney.
Things That Happen Once (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996)
A friend of mine went to SIU, Carbondale, to study under Jones and often spoke highly of his work. I recently picked up this volume, wholly by chance. I am not much for contemporary narrative poetry because it is too often written out of the belief that line breaks creates poetic value out of trivial texts. This book, with poems often with lines written a step shy of the border between formal and free verse, as though weighed by ear rather than measured, and with content often as lyrical as it is narrative, will through contrast generally affirm the opinion.

 



 

NON-FICTION RECOMMENDATIONS

I list here both essays and books. For the sake of specificity, I will tend to list individual essays rather than recommend the entire book. As I said above, there is no subdividing by topic: only listing by author.

 

Barth, J. Robert. The Symbolic Imagination: Coleridge and the Romantic Tradition (1977, 2d ed. 2001)
The focus of the book is Coleridge's ideas of symbol and imagination, particularly as developed in Biographia Literaria. But that does not mean the scope of this book is limited to Coleridge. BL one of the most informative works on modernist literature (and all that followed, either in positive or negative reaction. Barth's exploration of symbolism (as a mode of writing and thinking) acts likewise, speaking on Coleridge but speaking about aesthetic literature — and the aesthetic life. I could not recommend a work more for writers in the aesthetic, or artists of any medium. (It is not a technical work, nor do you need great familiarity with Coleridge or Wordsworth. Though, having the poems he references on hand is helpful.)
Barthes, Roland. Criticism and Truth
All of me wants to say this is a very readable book: if I were to teach an advanced class on creative writing this might be a central text. But I have to admit that it does demand some awareness of the situation of its writing, and at times the terminology can create problems. (For example, if you do not understand that his use of the word beauty is to critique the idea as used by his opponents, some moments of the book can be very confusing.) But it is a book that goes to the heart of the difference between writing an aesthetic text and writing a conventional, generic, nomic work. Even with its difficulties, you do not need a background in theory or criticism to read it: it is meant to be an entrance into the discussion. You do, however, need careful reading skills. (The complete text in English can be found online. For example, here.)
Bocola, Sandro. The Art of Modernism: Art, Culture, and Society from Goya to the Present Day
(Prestel, 1999; trans. Chatherine Schelbert and Nicholas Levis).
Only in its most basic purpose is this a work of art history. Its value lies in the breadth and organization of the history, presenting a history not of artists but of the very discourse of art that is Modernism. This book is far more about the hows and whys of the exploration of aesthetic art than it is about the facts of the history of art. It is for that that the work is so valuable to explorers in the literary medium. (The anchoring in the cycles of art history of no small value as well in its offering a means for a reader to generate a basis of critical engagement of works of art.)
Brooks, Cleanth. The Well-Wrought Urn
A classic. Worth the read for all students of literature.
Eliot, T.S. Essays
As with Pound, Eliot wrote quite a bit of critical work. Though, many people (including myself for some time) will not read some of the essays because the titles (e.g., "Milton" or "Kipling") make it seem the essays are specific to the topic. Eliot, however, is always writing about his ideas of literature and the creative endeavor, as well always writing out of what is a very coherent system of thought: what is essentially an exploration of organic writing. I am current rereading through much of Eliot for a larger project, and will add essays (and books) to this as I see fit.
"Tradition and the Individual Talent." (found in Selected Prose)
This is a greatly misunderstood essay. I read far more explications of this that completely miss than I do explications that at least graze the target. But, this is a worthwhile exploration of the difference between the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic to ponder. If you get one thing out of this, it is to understand that all art (literary or plastic or musical or what) of any merit is part of the ongoing conversation on art. Which is to say, to be a poet of merit, you must be engaged in the study of and conversation of the literary arts. Otherwise, you are simply running your mouth.
Fussell, Paul. Poetic Meter & Poetic Form
This is, perhaps, the go to book on the poetics of meter and form. Which is to say, it is nigh required reading. It is meant for a broad audience, though that does not mean it is low brow. (But it thus has no footnotes or references, which actually annoys me to know end.) If there is one problem with it, it is that he has intentionally simplified the discussion, so that there is only stressed and unstressed (and no variations between), and lines tend to be broken up into very regularized feet. This very much serves the purpose of his project; but recognize that it thus has its limits. Once you want to go further, into more complexity, you'll have to move into a more technical book, like David Baker's Meter in English.
Kermode, Frank. The Sense of an Ending
This is admittedly, at times, a somewhat difficult book to read. It demands attention. Though, I do not think I would say it demands that the reader be knowledged in criticism/theory before reading it. (It is the language that demands attention: it is easy to get lost in the language.) Nonetheless, it is valuable exploration of what narrative is, and of how it works in the human psyche. As to the endeavor of aesthetic literature, is very worth the effort. I consider it one of the most important books as regards my own development: both in the theoretic and in the creative fields. I push this on everyone I meet who is in graduate school.
Leavis, F.R. New Bearings in English Poetry and Revaluation
Leavis's critical work is considered the origins of the school of New Criticism. It has become fashionable these last decades to dump on New Criticism, and, granted, where it ultimately was taken led to some problematic approaches to literature. But I've always thought that the source of that disdain lay mostly in that contemporary verse could not bear an equivalent level of critique, so contemporary writers learned to ignore what they feared to face. The amount of thought these books have prompted for me has amazed me. The chapter on Milton and its exploration of prosody is alone worth the price of that book.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy
Generally, when I recommend a 'first book to read' of Nietxsche, I recommend The Gay Science (which is also worth reading as regards the aesthetic. In truth, everything Nietzsche wrote is about the aesthetic.) But, my honest opinion is that if you are serious about writing literature you have no excuse not having The Birth of Tragedy on your shelf, and no excuse not returning to it every couple of years. It is a fundamental work about the nature of art, one that informs the thoughts often even of those who speak against his ideas.
Yes, it is a difficult read the first time around. Don't worry about it: Nietzsche does not write for you to understand him clearly the first time around. He writes so the reader can develop and understanding, over time, through exploration. I have read it many times, and continue to correct myself as to what I am reading. I recommend the newer Cambridge edition, edited by Geuss and Spiers. Not that there is anything wrong with the Kaufmann translation; I merely find the Cambridge more readable.
Ortega y Gasset, Jose. "The Dehumanization of Art"
(The Dehumanization of Art and Other Writings on Art and Culture
An essay that is, essentially, describing the difference between the aesthetic and the nomic, though from a social angle, not from the angle of the artist. Its approach is to explore a very simple question: why is modern art (i.e., in its context, Modernist art) able to be engaged by a few, yet wholly unengagable to the majority? Controversial in that it is arguing that society is made up of two types of people: those who see the world aesthetically and those who see the world nomically (my terms, not his). (Note, he does not engage the question of whether a person is born permanently into one mindset or the other; that is not his concern. It is sociological, not psychological.) Another very influential essay for myself. Highly recommend toward the exploration of the question of what is art.
Pound, Ezra. Essays
Pound's essays on literature are must reads. He will teach you more about writing poetry than anyone else, for as Eliot recognized, Pound's intended audience was primarily those people seeking do develop their literary sophistication (especially writers). I will list here the ones I think most beneficial from those I have read. (To note, many of his essays are available online.)
"I Gather the Limbs of Osiris" (in Selected Prose: 1909-1965)
With "A Retrospect," required reading. He is writing about making beautiful things out of words, so you should be reading it.
"A Retrospect" (in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound)
Required reading; required studying. You could organize an entire semester around engaging this one essay.
Pound, Ezra. The ABCs of Reading
I put this book here to make this comment: while this is a relatively famous book, and Pound put it forward as a tutorial on literature and the writing thereof, it is not the easiest read. Because of the style of writing, it is very easy to get wholly the wrong idea from the text. Generally, I do not recommend reading this book unless you are already very familiar with Pound's thinking.
Otto Rank. Art and Artist
A very influential work with pre-war, expatriot writers, e.g. Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. While Rank work closely with Freud most of his career, his writings feel far more in Jung's camp — or even Lévi-Strauss's for its moving into the mythic and anthropological. Do not let the subtitle (Creative Urge and Personality Development) scare you off. This is a fascinating and creatively energizing work. Highly recommend.
Sontag, Susan. "Against Interpretation."
Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966?; repeatedly anthologized)
Perhaps if there was one essay I would want every aspiring writer of literature to read – as well every student of literature –, it might this. It is not a difficult read, but I will it can be a tricky read. Pay attention. Start at the famous, final sentence – "In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art" – and read and read with the assumption that Sontag is diagnosing a severe illness within the approach to literature and art in the U.S. See where it takes you. This is manifesto, yes. But well argued manifesto. Not accusation, but a pointing out.
Stevens, Wallace. The Necessary Angel
I loved reading this the first time around, and safely put it on this list. But to be honest, it was quite a while ago that I read it, so I will refrain from comment until a re-read comes around.
Turco, Lewis. The Book of Forms: A Handbook in Poetics
Pretty much the dictionary of forms to have on your shelf. Keep aware that the changes from second to third edition were substantial.
Wimsatt, W.K., and Monroe C. Beardsley. "The Intentional Fallacy."
While there are moments where the language speaks the era of its writing, overall this is a necessary text for all persons interested in literature at more than a pop level. Readily found online, as with here.
Wordsworth, William. The Preface to Lyrical Ballads
Very worth the read as something to ponder. Though, I will admit, do not read it as a difinitive statement by any means. It has its problems, as Coleridge points out in the Biographia Literaria. Yet, I put a lot of time into exploring this work, and, even for the misconceptions I may have introduced into it, it was time well spent: not because of what Wordsworth said specifically as much as the thinking and debated it prompted. If you read this as a primer for poetry writing, you will probably be led astray because of the language and Wordsworth's own struggling with the ideas. But, why are you reading it as a primer in the first place? Read it, as with everything on this list, as an exploration to be shared.
Worringer, Wilhelm. Abstraction and Empathy
While this is about the plastic arts, it carries directly into literary arts. It is a fascinating read, and will very much get your head thinking about your own art. The ideas in it have influenced many thinkers upon the arts — and artists — since its publication. Be aware, though, it is a false step to directly graft the ideas of abstraction and empathy upon other ideas, such as that of the Dionysian and Apollonian. Let them be what they are on their own: they are potent enough as it is.

 


Notes on the Non-fiction List

I removed from this list Charles O. Hartman's Free Verse: An Essay on Prosody, which I put up there on the word of others. I have since read a good bit of it, enough to know that I find his presentation too fallacious to recommend (primarily in his unexamined use of the idea of "conventionality," but also in that the argument seems uncontrolled ideationally. Also, I have since discovered that it is not a highly considered work in academic circles.) — 1/4/13

I removed from this list Meter in English edited by David Baker. While this is a highly regarded work on prosody, and an interesting read in that it is a collection of guided responses to a central essay, "Meter in English" by Robert Wallace, responses written by familiar names within the discourse on prosody, the general idea of prosody set up by Wallace (and mostly sustained within the essays) is one that is far too academic — in Coleridge's terms mechanical — to be of value to an aesthetic exploration. (A statement I hope to back up in essay at some point.) — 6/17/14

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