In the early 1950s John Crowe Ransom, founding editor of this magazine, invited some of the most celebrated public intellectuals of the day, among them Northrop Frye, William Empson, and Leslie Fiedler, to offer their personal credos on their professional philosophies and aspirations. In marking The Kenyon Review’s 75th anniversary, sixteen poets, essayists, and fiction writers, authors who have published in our pages from early in their careers, present their own contemporary credos. Four have appeared in the print journal and twelve in KROnline. In addition, the original ten essays, still fascinating, were reprised in KROnline during 2014. The Credos series is produced in part thanks to the support of the National Endowment for the Arts.
Below we feature the final 75th Anniversary Credo by Rowan Ricardo Phillips. Other current and original credos are accessible by clicking on the links to the left.
As Though We Have Nothing Else to Rely On
By Rowan Ricardo Phillips
What is poetry? How can I explain it? And how do I explain it to you in prose? At moments like these prose is a brick through the poet’s window. The fate of the poet is to ignore the broken window and make good use of the brick, and of the draft. A broken window lets in a stranger world, not a familiar outside into a familiar inside, that’s gone to ruin, but rather a type of new encounter of the mind and its art—the air is welcome, the air is unwelcome. And still there’s the poet’s conductor, the cosmic madman in the mind, urging it all to poem. He waves the horns of the prose to hush, waves the stings to play, the higher horns to play, the lower horns to hush, the motionless pianist propped up on his bench like a ventriloquist’s doll on a ventriloquist’s lap, the percussionist tensed and waiting, the sound made and waiting to be made. It’s time for it to be time. It’s time. The air rises and drop. I start now. I am writing. I am writing in prose. I am explaining poetry and my creative process. There’s something of O’Hara’s “I am a real poet” in all of it. Something conducting the words to mean more than they otherwise would or should. A poet writing prose, I am now writing what I mean. A poet writing in prose, I am meaning what I write. This is what’s implicit in the change from poetry to prose. As though habemus aliud nihil. As though exposition over inference, sentence over syllable, the patina of plot on the surface of personal encounter, can solve the iridescent mystery of the poet. The incandescent mystery, a changing spark, that pinwheels from What is poetry? To Why do you write poetry? To What was poetry? And back again.