The Art of Poetry (an Ars Poetica)

By Shane Devine


Marble relief with a dancing maenad. Adaptation of work attributed to Kallimachos, ca. 27 B.C. – A.D. 14. Credit: Fletcher Fund, 1935.

Written June 2016


“I can say what I want in a whisper,” he said
This to me in a dream; it was Sallust the crisp,
The robust and annihilate writer of old,
Who rewards with the road to antiquity;
Not too long ere this exposé of Word
Did a goddess deliver herself to my mind
In a series of sentences armed to the teeth:
To the birth, so far back, the primordial soul,
The great mother of all that ferments and destroys,
With the flowery wreath in her hair, in a robe,
And the Thyrsus of Bacchus so wrapped in her palm,
Bringing lips underfed to the nectar of Greece
With the wisdom that only a mother could speak.
“It is closed to the many the enjoyment you hold
For the thoughts of that man who enchants all your might,
But I know,” in the gentlest of tones she did say,
“He loves ice and the fire of summer at once,
He holds Life to be tragic and comic in one,
He runs past the black scarecrow that’s cautioning life;
This here world is forever controlled by the dance
Of the bare footed frenzies who strike at the bells
With a fury of cymbals, and grapes, and the light,
And the tambourine rhythm that makes and destroys.”
I have drank the sweet nectar Olympian bold
Yet infused with the darkly-black waters of Styx;
So the Doric and Grecian I now understand,
With a stiff marble pillar it breaks the two storms,
The resistant terrain and the trembling roof;
All the Opposites tethered in harmony great,
So is health neither goodness nor evil: beyond.
In the trials of time through which poets endure
It is always their strength that I notice the most.
In the poets that live on to bypass their foes
It is lack of verbosity causing their glow.
Likewise naught will this school of the minimal last,
For in both do we find this licentious extreme.
My advice on one’s diction thus mirrors the man,
Who from high on the noblest of horses in war
Holds disdain for the priest and the pauper the same.
In the ears that our rhythmical music will ring
Let us always insist that some meter be there:
As it’s ever so tempting in times with such noise
To pronounce what we think in a headlong charade,
To forsake the great waters of Helicon’s spout
By polluting pristine Aganippe with prose;
Our great passions are fiercer than saccharine floods
And shall never reflect in meandering thought,
So eschew these two swamps with the wings of your art.
That romantic be cursed who said meter’s a bar
Which refuses the Muses by forcing its law.
A developing poet hears rhythm in air
And delivers his soul more in beat than in word.
But those Musical Daughters alone shall not do
What the separate child of Zeus’s decides:
I mean holder and spinner of fateful decree
The magistrate Dikē, morality’s might,
Who shall weigh all the actions the subject portrays.
Let us always remember our forefather’s mind
Which discerned nothing evil in whirlwinding Night
But saw struggling War carry on, without sight;
The depraved exists Not but in faiths of the Jude,
O and do we not follow the goat-hornèd men
The believers of Bacchus, the satyrs and fauns?
Is our purpose not signing the wine-god’s parade
Whether war or beloveds may circle our praise,
Don’t we live to bestow to the world a great paint
Which will animate wildly tambourine dance
Always circ’ling and circ’ling the frenzy-red splash
Of the blood and the wine in our wondrous strife
Which will baptize anew the whole meaning of Life
In the name of the poet and knightly command
And say bye to the merchant and peasanty man?
Now let’s gather our spirits together again,
For the fire of passion can melt any calm.
As for rhyme, I would place the decision in you,
But the classical favors the etching in stone,
Which is hard, often rough, asymmetrically bound.
Repetition of rhyme has polluting effects;
It brings dullness to thought and makes mock’ry of truth,
Yet if that be your goal in the heat of the heart,
As was shown just before, then let classical part
And commence the great rhyming of medieval tart!

The preceding advice will wither and die
If the writer that wreathes them depletes his supply;
In becoming too heavy one loses his wings,
Yet excessive immersion in poetry kills:
When the youth underlived sits beneath some old tree
And corroding his manliness lost in a trance
By composing a poetry absent of woe
Without history, life, the philosopher’s tongue,
An unmusical noise that’s bereft of his blood,
If the poet flees stress by unbending his bow
Disregarding his arrow by drawing in sand
Then the whole point of Homer is lost on his ears
And he might as well bother with gossip and news.
But if lightning does strike him from comfortable seas
And the tidal of Nature delivers him south:
If he happens to land in some forest of doubt
He shall meditate cold in a ravenous bout.
All abandoned to wicked auroras and sprites
He’ll return to mankind with the words of Himself,
Each one measured and thought through to highest degree,
On a tablet of clay now forever engraved;
He will place it on steps to the temple of Moon,
As an offering fresh from the furnace of Man.
Wisdom, strength, patience and poise
These will make men from the boys.