The Washington Post Sunday, June 8, 2003; Page BW12

Poet's Choice: By Edward Hirsch

"Poetry is the subject of the poem," Wallace Stevens declared, and the ars poetica is a poem that takes the art of poetry as its explicit subject. It proposes an aesthetic. Self-referential, uniquely conscious of itself as both a treatise and a performance, the great ars poetica embodies what it is about.

Horace's Ars Poetica is our first known poem on poetics and the fountainhead of the tradition. Horace introduces himself as both poet and critic in what was probably his final work (10 B.C.), a combination of the formal epistle and the technical treatise. It is an eloquent defense of liberty at a time when freedom was imperiled in Rome. Horace speaks of art and ingenuity, of the poet's need to fuse unity and variety, to delight as well as to be useful. He wittily defends the usefulness of artistic constraints and the necessity for creative freedom. He writes on behalf of both writer and reader. Here are some key lines from J. D. McClatchy's excellent translation:

It's not enough that poems be exquisite.
Let empathy prevail and lead the listener's
Heart. A face will smile to see a smile,
Or weep at tears. If you would have me grieve,
Then first feel grief yourself. . . .

Byron alludes to the Ars Poetica in his 1811 "Hints from Horace," which he ranked as one of his best poems, and expands on these lines with an easy galloping cleverness:

'T is not enough, ye bards, with all your art,
To polish poems; they must touch the heart:
Wherever the scene be laid, whate'er the song,
Still let it bear the hearer's soul along;
Command your audience or to smile or weep,
Whiche'er may please you -- anything but sleep.
The poet claims our tears; but, by his leave,
Before I shed them, let me see him grieve.

An anthology of the ars poetica would include Pope's "Essay on Criticism," passages from Wordsworth's Prelude and Whitman's "Song of Myself"; Emily Dickinson's #1129 ("Tell all the Truth but tell it slant"); Wallace Stevens's "Of Modern Poetry"; and Hugh MacDiarmid's "The Kind of Poetry I Want" ("A poetry that takes its polish from a conflict/ Between discipline at its most strenuous/ And feeling at its highest"). It would include Marianne Moore's "Poetry" ("I, too, dislike it"), Czeslaw Milosz's "Ars Poetica?" ("The purpose of poetry is to remind us/ How difficult it is to remain just one person") and James Wright's harrowing "Ars Poetica: Some Recent Criticism" ("Reader,/ We had a lovely language,/ We would not listen"). The ars poetica, like the defense of poetry, becomes a necessary form when poetry is called into question and freedom is endangered.

Here is the lead poem in Scars, a fresh new translation of poems by the Bulgarian poet Blaga Dimitrova. I admire Dimitrova's intense urgency and force, the way she writes every poem as if it were a final statement. Her work has the sting of long experience.

Ars Poetica
Write each of your poems
as if it were your last.
In this century, saturated with strontium,
charged with terrorism,
flying with supersonic speed,
death comes with terrifying suddenness.
Send each of your words
like a last letter before execution,
a call carved on a prison wall.
You have no right to lie,
no right to play pretty little games.
You simply won't have time
to correct your mistakes.
Write each of your poems,
tersely, mercilessly,
with blood -- as if it were your last.

(The lines from J. D. McClatchy's translation of Horace's "Ars Poetica" appear in his book "Twenty Questions." Columbia University Press. Copyright © 1998 Columbia University Press. Blaga Dimitrova's poem "Ars Poetica" appears in "Scars," selected and translated from the Bulgarian by Ludmilla G. Popova-Wightman. Ivy Press. Translation copyright © 2002 by Ludmilla G. Popova-Wightman.)

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