Edwin Muir on Poetry, the Public, and Audience – in The Estate of Poetry

From Edwin Muir’s thoughtful The Estate of Poetry (1962):

“I’ve been trying to measure the gap between the public and the poet, and to find some explanation why it is so great…. The first allegiance of any poet is to imaginative truth…but it does not mean that he should turn inward into the complex problems of poetry, or be concerned with poetry as a problem. That is something which has commonly happened in the last fifty years. There was some excuse for it after the years of experiment associated with Mr. Eliot and Mr. Pound. To them, about 1910, poetry seemed to have come to a dead end, and intense thought had to be given to it. The experiments of that time and the succeeding years have become a part of literary history. As they were new and strange when they were first attempted, they were found difficult by the reader; and they seem to have left for a time in the minds of poets and critics the belief that poetry should be difficult. The experimenters have done their work, and we should be thankful to them. There have been many experimenters in English poetry: Chaucer was one; and Spenser, Milton, Dryden, and Wordsworth were all experimenters. The experimenters of forty years ago did something to poetry and something for poetry. One kind of poetry was written before T.S. Eliot, and another kind after him. But the point of an experiment is that it should solve the particular problem set for it. This was done in the twenties…. There remains the temptation for poets to turn inward into poetry, to lock themselves in to a hygienic prison where they speak only to one another, and to the critic, their stern warder. In the end a poet must create his audience, and to do that he must turn outward. Even if he is conscious of having no audience, he must imagine one. That may be the way to conjure it out of the public void.” ALSO: expanded excerpt of Muir (scroll to “1962”) at Socialit subsite.

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