American Poet, Novelist, Critic, Children's Author, Essayist
"One of the most obvious facts about grown-ups, to a child, is that they have forgotten what it is like to be a child."
"A poet is a man who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times."
"I see at last that all the knowledge I wrung from the darkness - that darkness flung me - Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing the darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness And we call it wisdom. It is pain."
"I think that one possible definition of our modern culture is that it is one in which nine-tenths of our intellectuals can't read any poetry."
"If we meet an honest and intelligent politician, a dozen, a hundred, we say they aren't like politicians at all, and our category of politicians stays unchanged; we know what politicians are like."
"Is my voice the voice of that skin of being-of what owns, is owned in honor or dishonor, that is borne and bears- or of that raw thing, the being inside it that has neither a wife, a husband, nor a child but goes at last as naked from this world as it was born into it."
"It is always difficult for poets to believe that one says their poems are bad not because one is a fiend, but because their poems are bad."
"It is better to entertain an idea than to take it home to live with you for the rest of your life."
"Most of us know, now, that Rousseau was wrong: that man, when you knock his chains off, sets up the death camps. Soon we shall know everything the 18th century didn't know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us."
"Sometimes it is hard to criticize, one wants only to chronicle. The good and mediocre books come in from week to week, and I put them aside and read them and think of what to say; but the worthless books come in day after day, like the cries and truck sounds from the street, and there is nothing that anyone could think of that is good enough for them."
"The climate of our culture is changing. Under these new rains, new suns, small things grow great, and what was great grows small; whole species disappear and are replaced."
"The people who live in a golden age usually go around complaining how yellow everything looks."
"The soul has no assignments, neither cooks Nor referees: it wastes its time. It wastes its time."
"What do you have except--well, me? I joke about it but it's not a joke; The house and I are all he remembers. Next month how will he guess that it is winter And not just entropy, the universe Plunging at last into its cold decline? I cannot think of him without a pang. Poor rumpled thing, why don't you see That you have no more, really, than a man? Men aren't happy; why are you?"
"When one reads the verse of people who cannot write poems - people who sometimes have more intelligence, sensibility, and moral discrimination than most of the poets - it is hard not to regard the Muse as a sort of fairy godmother who says to the poet, after her colleagues have showered on him the most disconcerting and ambiguous gifts, Well, never mind. You're still the only one that can write poetry."
"The days went by for him, all different and all the same. The boy was happy, and yet he didn't know that he was happy, exactly: he couldn't remember having been unhappy. If one day as he played at the edge of the forest some talking bird had flown down and asked him: Do you like your life he would not have known what to say, but would have asked the bird: Can you not like it?"
"A bat is born naked and blind and pale. His mother makes a pocket of her tail and catches him. He clings to her long fur by his thumbs and toes and teeth. And then the mother dances through the night doubling and looping, soaring, somersaulting ? her baby hangs on underneath."
"A [literary] style can be a whole way of existing, so that you exist, for the moment, in perfect sympathy with it: you don?t read it so much as listen to it as it sweeps you along?fast enough, often, to make you feel a blurred pleasure in your own speed. Often a phrase or sentence has the uncaring unconscious authority?how else could you say it??that only a real style has."
"A correct answer is like an affectionate kiss, Goethe said; a correct answer, Gertrude would have said, is like a slap in the face."
"?My destiny is accomplished and I die content.? How often she made such quotations as these, said or felt or was them! For just as many Americans want art to be Life, so this American novelist wanted life to be Art, not seeing that many of the values?though not, perhaps, the final ones?of life and art are irreconcilable; so that her life looked coldly into the mirror that it held up to itself, and saw that it was full of quotations, of data and analysis and epigrams, of naked and shameful truths, of facts: it saw that it was a novel by Gertrude Johnson."
"A farmer is separated from a farmer by what farmers have in common: forests, those dark things ? what the fields were to begin with. At night a fox comes out of the forest, eats his chickens. At night the deer come out of the forest, eat his crops."
"A culture is no better than its woods,? Auden writes. Fortunately for him, a book of poetry can be better than its poems. Two-thirds of The Shield of Achilles is non-Euclidean needlepoint, a man sitting on a chaise longue juggling four cups, four saucers, four sugar lumps, and the round-square: this is what great and good poets do when they don?t even bother to write great and good poems, now that they?ve learned that?it?s Auden?s leitmotif, these days?art is essentially frivolous. But a little of the time Auden is essentially serious, and the rest of the time he?s so witty, intelligent, and individual, so angelically skillful, that one reads with despairing enthusiasm, and enjoys Auden?s most complacently self-indulgent idiosyncrasy almost as one enjoys Sherlock Holmes?s writing Victoria Rex on the wall in bullet holes."
"A few months ago I read an interview with a critic; a well-known critic; an unusually humane and intelligent critic. The interviewer had just said that the critic ?sounded like a happy man?, and the interview was drawing to a close; the critic said, ending it all: ?I read, but I don?t get any time to read at whim. All the reading I do is in order to write or teach, and I resent it. We have no TV, and I don?t listen to the radio or records, or go to art galleries or the theater. I?m a completely negative personality.? As I thought of that busy, artless life?no records, no paintings, no plays, no books except those you lecture on or write articles about?I was so depressed that I went back over the interview looking for some bright spot, and I found it, one beautiful sentence: for a moment I had left the gray, dutiful world of the professional critic, and was back in the sunlight and shadow, the unconsidered joys, the unreasoned sorrows, of ordinary readers and writers, amateurishly reading and writing ?at whim?. The critic said that once a year he read Kim, it was plain, at whim: not to teach, not to criticize, just for love?he read it, as Kipling wrote it, just because he liked to, wanted to, couldn?t help himself. To him it wasn?t a means to a lecture or an article, it was an end; he read it not for anything he could get out of it, but for itself. And isn?t this what the work of art demands of us? The work of art, Rilke said, says to us always: You must change your life. It demands of us that we too see things as ends, not as means?that we too know them and love them for their own sake. This change is beyond us, perhaps, during the active, greedy, and powerful hours of our lives, but during the contemplative and sympathetic hours of our reading, our listening, our looking, it is surely within our power, if we choose to make it so, if we choose to let one part of our nature follow its natural desires. So I say to you, for a closing sentence: Read at whim! read at whim!"
"A few weeks ago I read, in Sacheverell Sitwell, two impressive sentences: ?It is my belief that I have informed myself of nearly all works of art in the known world.... I have heard most of the music of the world, and seen nearly all the paintings.? It was hard for me to believe these sentences, but I wanted Sitwell to be able to say them, liked him for having said them?I believed."
"A filmy trash litters the black woods with the death of men; and one last breath curls from the monstrous chimney."
"A Little Treasury of Modern Poetry is a standard Oscar Williams production... ...the book has the merit of containing a considerably larger selection of Oscar Williams?s poems than I have seen in any other anthology. There are nine of his poems ? and five of Hardy?s. It takes a lot of courage to like your own poetry almost twice as well as Hardy?s."
"A man on a park bench has a lonely final look, as if to say: ?Reduce humanity to its ultimate particles and you end here; beyond this single separate being you cannot go.? But if you look back into his life you cannot help seeing that he is separated off, not separate?is a later, singular stage of an earlier plural being. All the tongues of men were baby talk to begin with: go back far enough and which of us knew where he ended and Mother and Father and Brother and Sister began? The singular subject in its objective universe has evolved from that orginal composite entity?half subjective, half objective, having its own ways and laws and language, its own life and its own death?the family."
"A poem is sort of an onion of contexts, and you can no more locate any of the important meanings exclusively in a part than you can locate a relation in one of its terms. The signi?cance of a part may be greatly modified or even in extreme cases completely reversed by later and larger parts and by the whole."
"A good religious poem, today, is ambergris, and it is hard to enjoy it for thinking of all those suffering whales; but martyrs are born, not made."
"A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times."
"A successful poem says what a poet wants to say, and more, with particular finality. The remarks he makes about his poems are incidental when the poem is good, or embarrassing or absurd when it is bad ? and he is not permitted to say how the good poem is good, and may never know how the bad poem is bad. It is better to write about other people's poetry."
"Age could not wither nor custom stale her infinite monotony: in fact, neither Age nor Custom could do anything (as they said, their voices rising) with the American novelist Gertrude Johnson."
"Alexander North Whitehead is supposed to have said of [Bertrand] Russell: ?Bertie thinks me muddleheaded and I think Bertie simple-minded.?"
"All his tunk-a-tunks, his hoo-goo-boos ? those mannered, manufactured, individual, uninteresting little sound-inventions ? how typical they are of the lecture-style of the English philosopher, who makes grunts or odd noises, uses homely illustrations, and quotes day in and day out from Alice, in order to give what he says some appearance of that raw reality it so plainly and essentially lacks. These ?tootings at the wedding of the soul? are fun for the tooter, but get as dreary for the reader as do all the foreign words ? a few of these are brilliant, a few more pleasant, and the rest a disaster: ?one cannot help deploring his too extensive acquaintance with the foreign languages?, as Henry James said, of Walt Whitman, to Edith Wharton."
"An author frequently chooses solemn or overwhelming subjects to write about; he is so impressed at writing about Life and Death that he does not notice that he is saying nothing of the slightest importance about either."