The Unwrinkled Words

More excerpts from John Frederick Nims' Western Wind


The painter Edgar Degas wanted to write poems. Said to the poet Mallarme that he couldn't seem to write well, though "he was full of ideas."Mallarme: "My dear Degas, poems are not made out of ideas. They're made out of words." The best, noblest ideas, even though they may turn into images, are of no avail as poems unless the words are right--just as a statue even of the noblest subject is a failure if the wood cracks or the marble shatters.

Auden--When he asks a potential student or poet why do you want to write poetry and the young man answers because I have important things to say, then he's not a poet. But if he answers I like hanging around words listening to what they say, then maybe he's going to be a poet.

Valery says poets have more trouble finding ideas to fit their words than words to fit their ideas.

William Carlos Williams--A poem is a small machine made out of words. Echoing Valery who had already said a poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words.

Much nonpoetic speech aims at communicating information, but poets care how they say a thing. Care about the sound and length of words, their suggestions, their rhythm when put together. They want to say something not only right for the occasion, but something that will keep forever. They are getting back, in short, to language as a kind of magic.

Joseph Conrad--fresh usual words--best words available to the poet.

Andre Breton--the unwrinkled words.

Connotation--the suggestions that words accumulate in addition to the denotation, or dictionary meaning.


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