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January 1957

Making and Judging Poetry
by W. H. Auden

If poetry were in great public demand so that there were overworked professional poets, I can imagine a system under which an established poet would take on a small number of apprentices who would begin by changing his blotting paper, advance to typing his manuscripts, and end up by ghost-writing poems for him which he was too busy to start or finish. The apprentices might really learn something...

In fact, of course, a would-be poet serves his apprenticeship in a library. This has its advantages. Though the Master is deaf and dumb and gives neither instruction nor criticism, the apprentice can choose any Master he likes, living or dead, the Master is available at any hour of the day or night, lessons are all for free, and his passionate admiration of his Master will ensure that he work hard to please him...

We must assume that our apprentice does succeed in becoming a poet, that, sooner or later, a day arrives when his Censor is able to say truthfully and for the first time: “All the words are right, and all are yours.”

His thrill at hearing this does not last long, however, for a moment later comes the thought: “Will it ever happen again?” Whatever his future life as a wage-earner, a citizen, a family man may be, to the end of his days his life as a poet will be without anticipation. He will never be able to say: “Tomorrow I will write a poem and, thanks to my training and experience, I already know I shall do a good job.” In the eyes of others a man is a poet if he has written one good poem. In his own he is only a poet at the moment when he is making his last revision to a new poem. The moment before, he was still only a potential poet: the moment after, he is a man who has ceased to write poetry, perhaps for ever.

Volume 199, No. 1, pp. 44–52

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