from the first draft of my introduction to A Poet's Sourcebook: Writings about Poetry, from the Ancient World to the Present, selected by me [Autumn House Press, 2013]:
“How far we are going to read a poet when we can read about a poet is a problem to lay before biographers,” wrote Virginia Woolf, in a not entirely complimentary essay about Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s novel-poem Aurora Leigh. Yet as Woolf well knew, the back story offers its own illuminations; and “we may suspect that Elizabeth Barrett was inspired by a flash of true genius when she rushed into the drawing-room and said that here, where we live and work, is the true place for the poet.”
As I sifted among my choices for this anthology, I found myself returning again and again to Woolf’s remarks. Why do we hover between reading a poet and reading about a poet? And how does poetry come from where we live and work? These are questions that poets, and the watchers of poets, have been pondering for millennia; and if there is any overarching theme to A Poet's Sourcebook, it lingers within those perplexities.
Neither a craft handbook nor a theory manual, this anthology is merely one reader’s record of the long human need to make poetry. For no matter how distant in time those individuals have become, reading about that need, in both their own words and the words of others, keeps our relationship with them intimate and immediate. Suetonius explains Virgil’s revision process; Sir Philip Sidney argues with Aristotle; Emily Brontë peels potatoes and creates an imaginary country; Phillis Wheatley tries on John Milton’s syntax for size; Walt Whitman invents a manifesto for a poetic tribe that doesn’t yet exist; Audre Lorde sings the body electric; Jack Wiler rants about high school; ten-year-old Ethan Richard complains that poetry “always spouts the truth you don’t want other people to hear in public.”
In her novel Daniel Deronda, George Eliot writes:
A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amid the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbours, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as a sweet habit of the blood.
As I worked on this anthology, I became increasingly aware of my “tender kinship” for these writers, past and present, distant and near, who are, in some deep ancient way, my flesh and bones. The native land we share is poetry, and the very act of choosing these particular voices from among all the other voices of history was like embarking alongside them on a voyage to our collective home. Yet at the same time I was discovering how personal any such compendium must be; how, despite all efforts at universality, it ends up reflecting its editor’s obsessions and limitations.