William Meredith’s 1976 essay “The Luck of It” begins with this meditation on how poems and poets work:

A poet approaches language in the spirit of a woodman who asks pardon of the dryad in a tree before he cuts it down. Words are inhabited by the accumulated experience of the tribe. The average poet adds about as much to the language as he adds to the nitrogen content of his native soil. But he can administer the force that resides in words.

It is the magic inhabiting the language that he administers, all the lived meaning that the noises have picked up in the days and nights since they were first uttered. He finds ways to revive that total meaning, or a part of it he wants to use, as he makes his verbal artifacts. His very attentive use of a word, associating it with other words used with equal attention (for no word is an island), astonishes us the way we would be astonished to hear a dryad speak pardon out of an oak tree. And as if this were not all elfin enough already, he does the job largely at a subconscious level. His intelligence stands around, half the time, like a big, friendly, stupid apprentice, handing him lopping-shears when he wants the chain saw.

In “Duns Scotus’s Oxford,” Hopkins demonstrates this magic of association in the tremendous energy of the opening and closing lines. “Towery city and branchy between towers;”—who would have imagined there was all that going on in those six words before they were joined in that sequence? And of Duns Scotus himself, the final line says, “Who fired France for Mary without spot.” Kinesis is all, and the energy is in the words rather than in the thinky parts of man’s mind.

He goes on to discuss his own poetry and my attention wanders, but I like that opening. (Via wood s lot.)


  1. “The thinky parts of man’s mind,” huh? Sounds like Meredith was blazing a trail for both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the truthy and grippy Mr. Colbert.

  2. This is beautiful.

  3. As one who’s long despaired of understanding poetry in any language, I probably have no right to comment. But my reading of the poem and text reinforce for me that those lines with the most “magical of associations”, in this author’s terms, are also the most obscure. Didn’t Frost describe poetry as what was lost in translation? Meredith seems to expand that definition to include, as well, what’s been lost in the original.

  4. It takes me back. Meredith said something like this decades ago in the intro to his translation of Apollinaire’s “Alcools”. This is better, though.

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