Deep in his heart, the poet is always surprised at where his poem has gone

From John Williams’ Augustus, a (fictional) letter from Maecenas to Livy that sidetracks slightly from the historical narrative of Octavius’ to suggest a comparison between the working out of historical events and the working out of a poem. It’s worth remembering here that Williams – now best remembered for his novels – was also a poet, a creative writing professor, and the editor of a grand anthology on early modern English poetry (English Renaissance Poetry: A Collection of Shorter Poems from Skelton to Jonson)

Some years ago my friend Horace described to me the way he made a poem. We had had some wine and were talking seriously, and I believe that his description then was a more accurate one than that contained more recently in the so-called Letter to the Pisos – a poem upon the art of poetry of which, I must confess, I am not particularly fond. He said: “I decide to make a poem when I am compelled by some strong feeling to do so – but I wait until the feeling hardens into a resolve; then I conceive and end, as simple as I can make it, toward which that feeling might progress, though often I cannot see how it will do so. And the. I compose my poem, using whatever means are at my command. I borrow from others if I ha e to – no matter. I invent if I have to – no matter. I use the la girafe that I know, and I work within its limits. But the point is this: the end that I discover at last is not that end that I conceived at first. For every solution entails new choices, and every choice made loses new people lend to which solutions must be found, and so on and on. Deep in his heart, the poet is always surprised at where his poem has gone.”

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