Poems as Constellations

Approach to the poem must be from afar off, even generations off. A reader should close in on it on converging lines from many directions like the divisions of an army upon a battlefield. A poem is best read in the light of all the other poems ever written. We read A the better to read B (we have to start somewhere; we may get very little out of A) .We read B the better to read C, C the better to read D, D the better to go back and get something more out of A. Progress is not the aim, but circulation. The thing is to get among the poems where they hold each other apart in their places as the stars do.

Robert Frost, “The Prerequisites,” Selected Prose of Robert Frost, ed. Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Lathem (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1966) , p. 97.

[W]hat happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. …The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.

T. S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Selected Prose, ed. John Hayward (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1953), p. 23.

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