Virgina Woolf on Poetry

Extract from:

A Letter to a Young Poet  – Virginia Woolf

Written in 1932.

“I feel a jar. I feel a shock. I feel as if I had stubbed my toe on the corner of the wardrobe. Am I then, I go on to ask, shocked, prudishly and conventionally, by the words themselves? I think not. The shock is literally a shock. The poet as I guess has strained himself to include an emotion that is not domesticated and acclimatized to poetry; the effort has thrown him off his balance; he rights himself, as I am sure I shall find if I turn the page, by a violent recourse to the poetical — he invokes the moon or the nightingale. Anyhow, the transition is sharp. The poem is cracked in the middle. Look, it comes apart in my hands: here is reality on one side, here is beauty on the other; and instead of acquiring a whole object rounded and entire, I am left with broken parts in my hands which, since my reason has been roused and my imagination has not been allowed to take entire possession of me, I contemplate coldly, critically, and with distaste.

Such at least is the hasty analysis I make of my own sensations as a reader; but again I am interrupted. I see that you have overcome your difficulty, whatever it was; the pen is once more in action, and having torn up the first poem you are at work upon another. Now then if I want to understand your state of mind I must invent another explanation to account for this return of fluency. You have dismissed, as I suppose, all sorts of things that would come naturally to your pen if you had been writing prose — the charwoman, the omnibus, the incident on the Channel boat. Your range is restricted — I judge from your expression — concentrated and intensified. I hazard a guess that you are thinking now, not about things in general, but about yourself in particular. There is a fixity, a gloom, yet an inner glow that seem to hint that you are looking within and not without. But in order to consolidate these flimsy guesses about the meaning of an expression on a face, let me open another of the books on your table and check it by what I find there.

Again I open at random and read this:

To penetrate that room is my desire,

The extreme attic of the mind, that lies

Just beyond the last bend in the corridor.

Writing I do it. Phrases, poems are keys.

Loving’s another way (but not so sure).

A fire’s in there, I think, there’s truth at last

Deep in a lumber chest. Sometimes I’m near,

But draughts puff out the matches, and I’m lost.

Sometimes I’m lucky, find a key to turn,

Open an inch or two — but always then

A bell rings, someone calls, or cries of “fire”

Arrest my hand when nothing’s known or seen,

And running down the stairs again I mourn.

and then this:

There is a dark room,

The locked and shuttered womb,

Where negative’s made positive.

Another dark room,

The blind and bolted tomb,

Where positives change to negative.

We may not undo that or escape this, who

Have birth and death coiled in our bones,

Nothing we can do

Will sweeten the real rue,

That we begin, and end, with groans.

And then this:

Never being, but always at the edge of Being

My head, like Death mask, is brought into the Sun.

The shadow pointing finger across cheek,

I move lips for tasting, I move hands for touching,

But never am nearer than touching,

Though the spirit leans outward for seeing.

Observing rose, gold, eyes, an admired landscape,

My senses record the act of wishing

Wishing to be

Rose, gold, landscape or another —

Claiming fulfillment in the act of loving.

Since these quotations are chosen at random and I have yet found three different poets writing about nothing, if not about the poet himself, I hold that the chances are that you too are engaged in the same occupation. I conclude that self offers no impediment; self joins in the dance; self lends itself to the rhythm; it is apparently easier to write a poem about oneself than about any other subject. But what does one mean by “oneself”? Not the self that Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley have described — not the self that loves a woman, or that hates a tyrant, or that broods over the mystery of the world. No, the self that you are engaged in describing is shut out from all that. It is a self that sits alone in the room at night with the blinds drawn. In other words the poet is much less interested in what we have in common than in what he has apart. Hence I suppose the extreme difficulty of these poems — and I have to confess that it would floor me completely to say from one reading or even from two or three what these poems mean. The poet is trying honestly and exactly to describe a world that has perhaps no existence except for one particular person at one particular moment.”

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