At Bread Loaf Barn
Bread Loaf School of English, 1 August 1951
Typed transcript, 8 p. RBMS / C-4 / Cook, Reginald Lansing, 1903 – 1984 / Verbatim, vol. 2. Transcribed by Juanita Cook.

Question: What would you say about Mr. David L. Thomson's saying that science and poetry don't mix?

I have said that I wouldn't put a poem on the operating table; yet somebody else might and I wouldn't object. My relation with poetry and poems is not as being operated on. I respect the scholar and the doctor, but I'm different. I feel afraid that they think science is exact.

Question: What is the difference?

Answer: There is no difference in the discipline. The scientist operates on the human body, but I don't operate on poems. I entirely disagree with Spinoza about loving something intellectually. I don't want to be loved intellectually. Where do you begin with poetry? How shall I approach a poem?

Question: What do you think of Oscar Williams?

Answer: Oh, Lord, that's not a joke! Stedman in the Charles Eliot Norton lectures in the '80's said, "Nature has elements of poetry." I remember one thing—"I have loved flowers that fade…" And Robert Bridges… [Why do you like that?] God knows! There are bad and good poems. I can't tell the difference—a hell of a plight! Perish in it! You can't do the Divine Comedy without Italian.

Question: How would you study Paradise Lost?

Answer: If you have read enough poetry—Someone once gave me Keats' poems and I opened the book to the Preface where he said he might have lingered on this longer, but he probably had got as much out of it as he could; he was aware of its mawkishness, and yet he was sending it off for print. Mawkishness is the word. I often mark Keats, even the Eve of St. Agnes. So I put Keats away. Then I tried Endymion. Awful! Yet he has written one of the greatest poems we have—the Ode to Autumn, one of those pinnacles. You don't have to know. It's harder now for me. You just like poetry in all fields.

Freedom now…. Somebody has been sending me Field & Stream for a good many years. That doesn't bother me; I don't have to judge it. Now poets call each other great, but there is nothing like this in this magazine. We've had this in poetry for many years, but here I'm clear outside the judges. I remember when I was in school and the teacher asked me to "construe" [translate]—now that's taking the poetry out of it.

Wasn't Dante a strange man to hate so many people? But you don't say those things. Poetry is for a holiday, a gaiety. Poetry as an escape? (Poems of that sort he sheds.) No—shed them! I've got oil in my feathers! How? Oh, I know you're trying to say. I don't want to make anybody like poetry. Experience teaches me that a large part of the world doesn't care for poetry. If a person gets loose in the U.S. he makes a lot of money. I wonder if Yeats ever stopped taking money from the Civil List—you know he was a rebel for Ireland.

But there are ways of knowing, and I'll agree. I think you hear people liking this and that and you are influenced. It begins back with Mother Goose. Robert Service—Edgar Guest—Kipling. What is the scale? It's good to know where you are. Now for me the Minor poems of Milton are better than the later ones. But Paradise Lost is not where I disport myself, nor where I go for a holiday.

Irving Babbitt and John Livingston Lowes were friends at Harvard. Babbitt had high contempt for all but the best, although Lowes was perhaps the better writer. But on vacation Lowes read detective stories. Once, just as he met Babbitt on the street, he spilled an armful of them. Babbitt forgave him. A detective story writer as the chief translator for Dante—that makes me laugh.

It's not worth the trouble to attack poets you disapprove of, as Ransom did Guest in Texas—went all the way there to do it. Isn't he the people's poet? What is it they say?—the greatest good for the greatest number. [Ironic tone]

George Herbert Palmer had the greatest library of first editions of English poetry—that's gone to Wellesley College. He picked me up out of the gutter—he let in life. But he demanded that I write big things—he was going to plant me like 'Hiawatha'—the greatest good for the greatest number in our day. But he was failing. "Second childhood"—that's a wonderful word. I never went to see him again.

Edgar Guest was speaking in a small town. "He had a poem there" about what the minister said when he missed the cellar door with a shovelful of coal. "He had a poem there"—that was probably better than the one he wrote.

There was a wonderful picture somewhere — a fellow (Ferdinand) in a cap coming ashore on a tropical island. The next picture showed him making shelter for himself. Then snores coming out into the dark; then bright daylight. And he was peeking out and finding a bottle of milk!

Some children come with a nature for liking poetry. It's a kind of play, a way of cutting up. Takes time to fall into it. You do it very young, or you don't do it at all.

Ennius, the Latin poet, has a list; he lists bravery or courage as the third or fourth of the virtues. The first is knowing what to be brave about. Et tuba terribile sonata dixit. What you are afraid to translate tells you something of what is good poetry. Miles et in mensa pingere castra nero. (Catullus) Herman Wouk did this in The Caine Mutiny. The soldier dips his finger in the water and draws a description of the camp.

Question: How do you know what pleases you and why?

Answer: A psychologist could tell you that. I just don't think you need to know all that. But maybe you ought to know how you can tell bitter from sweet. Tell me a bad poem and maybe I can tell you why I don't like it. But you see you shed them. A friend of mine once was making an anthology of bad poems, but he said he couldn't find anything of mine to use. He had some poems of mine in manuscript, some things I wrote a long time ago—but I had shed them. Anyway, two of them weren't mine. I should have eaten them!

Don't you like a good simile when you hear one? How do you know what's a good one? Because you have grown up with them. Some don't! There's a college called Trinity, which is now called Duke. That might be a conundrum, you see: What college named for three gods is now named after one tobacconist?

Take one-ness—and Einstein. All the world is interested. He has attached two things to try to get them into one. To make gravity and electromagnetism into one may happen in twenty years. You parallel and unify things—this marks a kind of mind, the philosophic and the poetic mind. And metaphor brings two things together, too.

I don't like the poets who take somebody's philosophy and try to versify it.

There is no way to tell anybody how to recognize a good poem. You get it by listening and picking around and getting things that stick in your mind for some reason or other. Analysis may help. "None but the good can give good things." Can't agree, though it should be so and we wish it were true. Or take Emerson: "Out of the good evil born…." And "In vain produced, all rays return…." And now Einstein tries to prove it. "Verily know, when half gods go, the gods arrive." But don't ever let loyalty halt you. This is a hard place. I want to be loyal, you know, but I won't have it in poetry. And then there are places now where you must be loyal and true, or you'll be shot.

It [loyalty] asks you to give one god away for another god. When you leave an attachment for an attraction.

Question: Is one's sense of an author's style dependent on this expectation? What about expectation in writing too? Feeling is always ahead of thinking.

Answer: The approach to poetry is from very young, poem by poem, trial and error. "To fear not sensible failure…" [Louise Guiney] Went to England and devoted herself to Charles II— "who never said a foolish thing, and never did a wise one." A great king, a bad boy, more amusing than Cromwell.

The only way to understand any poems is in the light of all the other poems ever written. And you'd better get about it! They don't throw light on each other in a scholarly way. It is just that you get the flavor.

Question: Does Frost read [poetry? history?] for parallels?

Answer: Well, there's Gibbon, dying of cancer, the same old Gibbon talking parallels on his deathbed. When you're feeling frisky read Cuppy's Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody.

Question: Do people read to escape? Escape from women? What do you think of that?

Answer: Great joke! What I like least is the word "escape." When I escape to upstairs, I am escaping from downstairs. Can you do anything that isn't an escape? Nearly everything I do is a pursuit. Of what? Something or other. Like hunting. You might say that Freud was all wrong about sex. We have thoroughly escaped from it by going to war, etc. Men better stay in Wall Street all night.

To get back to the charming in poetry—"Little Willie hanged his sister…" A profoundly psychological verse! And F.O.A.—"Little Willie wrote a book;/ Woman was the theme he took/ Ain't he cute, He's over-sexed." Why do I like it?… We're easily influenced by others' likes and by what sticks with us. If it is quoted often.

[Quoted Coventry Patmore's "The Bay."] Why has it stayed in my mind? I never memorize a poem. It just sinks in. "Here in this little bay filled with tumultuous peace…." To talk "like and dislike" is very bad teaching. If you like the whole of anything, you ought to be willing to cheat yourself about some of the details, just as you do with friends.

Francis Thompson—A long time ago I went into Boston looking for a job. I stopped at the Old Corner Bookstore. I didn't have any money then to buy books, but I stopped at a little table. I flipped open a new book, a little thin one… "I fled Him down the nights…" I bought the book, and walked twenty-five miles home. That was one of the very few books I bought in those days, and I have that copy still. There's a drawing of Beardsley in the "evil" man, but he could draw pictures. A certain kind of person is better than anything he thinks he knows what's the matter with. "The glories of our blood and state are shadows…" That's from "Death, the Leveler" by Shirley. Kipling said in "The Greatest Story in the World" that the two highest places in poetry are the lines about "magic casements opening on perilous seas forlorn" and some lines from "Xanadu." It's not the appraisals that make poets great, but what gets going in your head.

Anybody that's been up will be up again; they will have revivals. As Tennyson was killed by Browning, now they're using Tennyson to discredit Browning. Perhaps Eliot will be as forgotten as Tennyson. It's all like ladies' hats—they go by. Somewhere in it all you will find you have got an assurance about what you like. Who gave you your liking? One thing—you like all of Robert Browning because he is in all his poetry. It comes down to what you remember. Don't teach by evaluation and appraisal.

Question: What is your idea of correspondence—beyond recognition?

Answer: Well, correspondence means meeting in your mind. The poet puts out filaments. Take this idea—one god is tragedy; more gods than one is comedy. Can you understand and go with that? If you have a lot of lightning rods in a neighborhood, the lightning will be drawn off. So with many gods. The great tragic things are when they all go one way. The great tragic thing is to be rooted in one god, one belief, one point of view. Am I weaving filaments somebody can correspond with me in? When people exchange places. Correspondence: when you curl the filaments of your brain and wave them to correspond with me.

"The gray grass is scarce dappled with the snow…" Some will understand and some will not. Do it on a percentage basis! Some people demand literal statements. There is no money in talking in metaphors!

The spirit of Greece is the spirit of comedy more than the spirit of tragedy you get out of Jerusalem. Even Jonah is utterly tragic—there you have the conflict of justice and mercy in one god.

You can always judge a man by the trios he makes—Christ, Dante, Dostoevsky.