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As Though We Have Nothing Else to Rely On

The Kenyon Review Credos

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.


More about The Kenyon Review Credos
In the early 1950s John Crowe Ransom, founding editor of The Kenyon Review, invited some of the most celebrated public intellectuals of the day, among them Northrop Frye, William Empson, and Leslie Fielder, to offer their personal credos on their professional philosophies and aspirations. (These essays, still fascinating, will be reprised on the KR website throughout 2014.) In marking The Kenyon Review’s 75th anniversary, sixteen poets, essayists, and fiction writers, authors who have published in our pages on our website from early in their careers, will present their own contemporary credos. Four have appeared in the print journal and twelve in KROnline. —D.H.L.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of The Ground (FSG: 2012) for which he received a Whiting Award, the PEN/Osterweil Award for Poetry, the GLCA New Writers Award for Poetry, and was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. Heaven will be published by FSG in June 2015. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.