Old Wisdom on Poetry Writing

Past masters of metrical perfection speak to modern-day aspirants of the art, and anyone else with ears to hear. Without exception, they urge us to write of what we know, in terms that can be understood, simply because we must.

Excerpts from The Rubaiyat of  Omar Khayyam (translated by FitzGerald)
To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence (Flecker) | Inspiration (Thoreau)
The Conundrum of the Workshops (Kipling)
Old Rhythm and Rhyme (Wilcox) | Ambition and Art (Paterson)
To the Man of the High North (Service)Poets of the Tomb (Lawson)
The Poet (Dandridge)Compensation (Guest)Old Poets (Kilmer)


The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (11th century Persian poet)

English translation by Edward FitzGerald (British, 1809-1883

The Revelations of Devout and Learn’d
Who rose before us, and as Prophets burn’d,
Are all but Stories, which, awoke from Sleep,
They told their fellows, and to Sleep return’d.

When You and I behind the Veil are past,
Oh but the long long while the World shall last,
Which of our Coming and Departure heeds
As much as Ocean of a pebble-cast.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.

For let Philosopher and Doctor preach
Of what they will, and what they will not — each
Is but one Link in an eternal Chain
That none can slip, nor break, nor over-reach.



To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence

James Elroy Flecker (British, 1884 – 1915)          

I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.

I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
Of metal or of masonry.

But have you wine and music still,
And statues and bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?

How shall we conquer? Like a wind
That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Maeonides the blind
Said it three thousand years ago.

O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.

Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand!




Henry David Thoreau (American, 1817 – 1862)

henry_david_thoreauIf with light head erect I sing
Though all the Muses lend their force,
From my poor love of anything,
The verse is weak and shallow as its source.

But if with bended neck I grope
Listening behind me for my wit,
With faith superior to hope,
More anxious to keep back than forward it, —

Making my soul accomplice there
Unto the flame my heart hath lit,
Then will the verse forever wear,–
Time cannot bend the line which God has writ.

I hearing get, who had but ears,
And sight, who had but eyes before;
I moments live, who lived but years,
And truth discern, who knew but learning’s lore.

Now chiefly is my natal hour,
And only now my prime of life;
Of manhood’s strength it is the flower,
‘Tis peace’s end, and war’s beginning strife.

It comes in summer’s broadest noon,
By a gray wall, or some chance place,
Unseasoning time, insulting June,
And vexing day with its presuming face.

I will not doubt the love untold
Which not my worth nor want hath bought,
Which wooed me young, and wooes me old,
And to this evening hath me brought.


The Conundrum of the Workshops

Rudyard Kipling (British born, 1865-1936)

rudyard_kiplingWhen the flush of a new-born sun fell first
on Eden’s green and gold,
Our father Adam sat under the Tree
and scratched with a stick in the mould;
And the first rude sketch that the world had seen
was joy to his mighty heart,
Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves,
“It’s pretty, but is it Art?”

Wherefore he called to his wife, and fled
to fashion his work anew —
The first of his race who cared a fig
for the first, most dread review;
And he left his lore to the use of his sons —
and that was a glorious gain
When the Devil chuckled “Is it Art?”
in the ear of the branded Cain.

They fought and they talked in the North and the South,
they talked and they fought in the West,
Till the waters rose on the pitiful land,
and the poor Red Clay had rest —
Had rest till that dank blank-canvas dawn
when the dove was preened to start,
And the Devil bubbled below the keel:
“It’s human, but is it Art?”

They builded a tower to shiver the sky
and wrench the stars apart,
Till the Devil grunted behind the bricks:
“It’s striking, but is it Art?”
The stone was dropped at the quarry-side
and the idle derrick swung,
While each man talked of the aims of Art,
and each in an alien tongue.

The tale is as old as the Eden Tree —
and new as the new-cut tooth —
For each man knows ere his lip-thatch grows
he is master of Art and Truth;
And each man hears as the twilight nears,
to the beat of his dying heart,
The Devil drum on the darkened pane:
“You did it, but was it Art?”

We have learned to whittle the Eden Tree
to the shape of a surplice-peg,
We have learned to bottle our parents twain
in the yelk of an addled egg,
We know that the tail must wag the dog,
for the horse is drawn by the cart;
But the Devil whoops, as he whooped of old:
“It’s clever, but is it Art?”

When the flicker of London sun falls faint
on the Club-room’s green and gold,
The sons of Adam sit them down
and scratch with their pens in the mould —
They scratch with their pens in the mould of their graves,
and the ink and the anguish start,
For the Devil mutters behind the leaves:
“It’s pretty, but is it Art?”

Now, if we could win to the Eden Tree
where the Four Great Rivers flow,
And the Wreath of Eve is red on the turf
as she left it long ago,
And if we could come when the sentry slept
and softly scurry through,
By the favour of God we might know as much —
as our father Adam knew!


Old Rhythm and Rhyme

Ella Wheeler Wilcox (American, 1850 – 1919)  


They tell me new methods now govern the Muses,
The modes of expression have changed with the times;
That low is the rank of the poet who uses
The old-fashioned verse with intentional rhymes.
And quite out of date, too, is rhythmical metre;
The critics declare it an insult to art.
But oh! the sweet swing of it, oh! the clear ring of it,
Oh! the great pulse of it, right from the heart,
Art or no art.

I sat by the side of that old poet, Ocean,
And counted the billows that broke on the rocks;
The tide lilted in with a rhythmical motion;
The sea-gulls dipped downward in time-keeping flocks.

I watched while a giant wave gathered its forces,
And then on the gray granite precipice burst;
And I knew as I counted, while other waves mounted,
I knew the tenth billow would rhyme with the first.

Below in the village a church bell was chiming,
And back in the woodland a little bird sang;
And, doubt it who will, yet those two sounds were rhyming,
As out o’er the hill-tops they echoed and rang.
The Wind and the Trees fell to talking together;
And nothing they said was didactic or terse;
But everything spoken was told in unbroken
And a beautiful rhyming and rhythmical verse.

So rhythm I hail it, though critics assail it,
And hold melting rhymes as an insult to art,
For oh! the sweet swing of it, oh! the dear ring of it,
Oh! the strong pulse of it, right from the heart,
Art or no art.



Ambition and Art

A. B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson (Australian, 1864-1941)


I am the maid of the lustrous eyes
Of great fruition,
Whom the sons of men that are over-wise
Have called Ambition.

And the world’s success is the only goal
I have within me;
The meanest man with the smallest soul
May woo and win me.

For the lust of power and the pride of place
To all I proffer.
Wilt thou take thy part in the crowded race
For what I offer?

The choice is thine, and the world is wide —
Thy path is lonely.
I may not lead and I may not guide —
I urge thee only.

I am just a whip and a spur that smites
To fierce endeavour.
In the restless days and the sleepless nights
I urge thee ever.

Thou shalt wake from sleep with a startled cry,
In fright upleaping
At a rival’s step as it passes by
Whilst thou art sleeping.

Honour and truth shall be overthrown
In fierce desire;
Thou shalt use thy friend as a stepping-stone
To mount thee higher.

When the curtain falls on the sordid strife
That seemed so splendid,
Thou shalt look with pain on the wasted life
That thou hast ended.

Thou hast sold thy life for a guerdon small
In fitful flashes;
There has been reward — but the end of all
Is dust and ashes.

For the night has come and it brings to naught
Thy projects cherished,
And thine epitaph shall in brass be wrought —
`He lived and perished.’


I wait for thee at the outer gate,
My love, mine only;
Wherefore tarriest thou so late
While I am lonely.

Thou shalt seek my side with a footstep swift,
In thee implanted
Is the love of Art and the greatest gift
That God has granted.

And the world’s concerns with its rights and wrongs
Shall seem but small things —
Poet or painter, a singer of songs,
Thine art is all things.

For the wine of life is a woman’s love
To keep beside thee;
But the love of Art is a thing above —
A star to guide thee.

As the years go by with thy love of Art
All undiminished,
Thou shalt end thy days with a quiet heart —
Thy work is finished.

So the painter fashions a picture strong
That fadeth never,
And the singer singeth a wond’rous song
That lives for ever.


To the Man of the High North

Robert W. Service (British Canadian, 1874-1958)

robert_serviceMy rhymes are rough, and often in my rhyming
I’ve drifted, silver-sailed, on seas of dream,
Hearing afar the bells of Elfland chiming,
Seeing the groves of Arcadie agleam.

I was the thrall of Beauty that rejoices
From peak snow-diademed to regal star;
Yet to mine aerie ever pierced the voices,
The pregnant voices of the Things That Are.

The Here, the Now, the vast Forlorn around us;
The gold-delirium, the ferine strife;
The lusts that lure us on, the hates that hound us;
Our red rags in the patch-work quilt of Life.

The nameless men who nameless rivers travel,
And in strange valleys greet strange deaths alone;
The grim, intrepid ones who would unravel
The mysteries that shroud the Polar Zone.

These will I sing, and if one of you linger
Over my pages in the Long, Long Night,
And on some lone line lay a calloused finger,
Saying: “It’s human-true — it hits me right”;

Then will I count this loving toil well spent;
Then will I dream awhile — content, content.


The Poets of the Tomb

Henry Lawson (Australian, 1867-1922)

henry_lawsonThe world has had enough of bards who wish that they were dead,
‘Tis time the people passed a law to knock ’em on the head,
For ‘twould be lovely if their friends could grant the rest they crave —
Those bards of `tears’ and `vanished hopes’, those poets of the grave.
They say that life’s an awful thing, and full of care and gloom,
They talk of peace and restfulness connected with the tomb.

They say that man is made of dirt, and die, of course, he must;
But, all the same, a man is made of pretty solid dust.
There is a thing that they forget, so let it here be writ,
That some are made of common mud, and some are made of GRIT;
Some try to help the world along while others fret and fume
And wish that they were slumbering in the silence of the tomb.

‘Twixt mother’s arms and coffin-gear a man has work to do!
And if he does his very best he mostly worries through,
And while there is a wrong to right, and while the world goes round,
An honest man alive is worth a million underground.
And yet, as long as sheoaks sigh and wattle-blossoms bloom,
The world shall hear the drivel of the poets of the tomb.

And though the graveyard poets long to vanish from the scene,
I notice that they mostly wish their resting-place kept green.
Now, were I rotting underground, I do not think I’d care
If wombats rooted on the mound or if the cows camped there;
And should I have some feelings left when I have gone before,
I think a ton of solid stone would hurt my feelings more.

Such wormy songs of mouldy joys can give me no delight;
I’ll take my chances with the world, I’d rather live and fight.
Though Fortune laughs along my track, or wears her blackest frown,
I’ll try to do the world some good before I tumble down.
Let’s fight for things that ought to be, and try to make ’em boom;
We cannot help mankind when we are ashes in the tomb.


The Poet

Raymond Garfield Dandridge (American, 1882-1930

raymond_garfield_dandridgeThe poet sits and dreams and dreams;
He scans his verse; he probes his themes.

Then turns to stretch or stir about,
Lest, like his thoughts, his strength give out.

Then off to bed, for he must rise
And cord some wood, or tamp some ties,

Or break a field of fertile soil,
Or do some other manual toil.

He dare not live by wage of pen,
Most poorly paid of poor paid men,

With shoes o’er-run, and thread bare clothes,
And editors among the foes

Who mock his song, deny him bread,
Then sing his praise when he is dead.




Edgar A. Guest (British American, 1881-1959)

edgar_a_guestI’d like to think when life is done
That I had filled a needed post,
That here and there I’d paid my fare
With more than idle talk and boast;
That I had taken gifts divine,
The breath of life and manhood fine,
And tried to use them now and then
In service for my fellow men.

I’d hate to think when life is through
That I had lived my round of years
A useless kind, that leaves behind
No record in this vale of tears;
That I had wasted all my days
By treading only selfish ways,
And that this world would be the same
If it had never known my name.

I’d like to think that here and there,
When I am gone, there shall remain
A happier spot that might have not
Existed had I toiled for gain;
That some one’s cheery voice and smile
Shall prove that I had been worth while;
That I had paid with something fine
My debt to God for life divine.


Old Poets

Alfred Joyce Kilmer (American, 1886-1918)

alfred_joyce_kilmerIf I should live in a forest
And sleep underneath a tree,
No grove of impudent saplings
Would make a home for me.

I’d go where the old oaks gather,
Serene and good and strong,
And they would not sigh and tremble
And vex me with a song.

The pleasantest sort of poet
Is the poet who’s old and wise,
With an old white beard and wrinkles
About his kind old eyes.

For these young flippertigibbets
A-rhyming their hours away
They won’t be still like honest men
And listen to what you say.

The young poet screams forever
About his sex and his soul;
But the old man listens, and smokes his pipe,
And polishes its bowl.

There should be a club for poets
Who have come to seventy year.
They should sit in a great hall drinking
Red wine and golden beer.

They would shuffle in of an evening,
Each one to his cushioned seat,
And there would be mellow talking
And silence rich and sweet.

There is no peace to be taken
With poets who are young,
For they worry about the wars to be fought
And the songs that must be sung.

But the old man knows that he’s in his chair
And that God’s on His throne in the sky.
So he sits by the fire in comfort
And he lets the world spin by.


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