What Can Be Explained Is Not Poetry

William Butler Yeats? John Butler Yeats? Carl Sandburg? Ezra Pound? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A reader who requests clarification for a poem that is opaque is sometimes met with a rejoinder of this type: If the lines can be explained then the work is not poetry.

This notion has been attributed to the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet William Butler Yeats and the U.S. poet and biographer Carl Sandburg. Interestingly, it has also been credited to John Butler Yeats, a painter who was the father of W. B. Yeats. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1917 a collection titled “Passages from the Letters of John Butler Yeats” was published in Ireland. The book’s editor, Ezra Pound, stated that he selected the excerpts from notes sent by J. B. Yeats to his son W. B. Yeats between 1911 and 1916. The following remark about poetry appeared in a message dated September 6, 1915. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

I take up some lines of poetry and say I will explain them and make the effort, always to end in giving it up. No explanation is possible. There is nothing to be done except to read out with friendliest voice the lines I started to make plain. What can be explained is not poetry. It is when the powers of explanation desert him that the poet writes verse.

Thus, John Butler Yeats deserves credit for this quotation and not William Butler Yeats. Two mechanisms help to explain this misattribution:

(1) Attributions sometimes shift between people with similar names.

(2) Attributions sometimes shift from a person of lower prominence to a person of greater prominence.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In August 1917 “The Athenaeum” journal of London published a review of the book mentioned above which included several reprinted snippets from the letters: 2

Of Blake he says, “Yet mysticism was never the substance of his poetry, only its machinery.” “What can be explained is not poetry.” These scraps of truth and penetrating insight are taken at haphazard from what almost amounts to a body of criticism and social theory.

In June 1918 the adage together with its correct ascription appeared in “Poetry: A Magazine of Verse”: 3

As Mr. John Butler Yeats says: “What can be explained is not poetry.”

In 1920 Albert Edmund Trombly, Professor of Romance Languages, mentioned the quotation: 4

Recently I have been reading letters written by Mr. J. B. Yeats to his son the poet, in which the father says something to this effect, that what can be explained is not poetry. Without pretending to understand this statement, which itself may not be explainable, I suspect that it points in the same direction as does Rossetti’s poetry. Poetry should be addressed to the imagination, not the understanding; should suggest, not narrate; should be concerned with moods rather than facts.

In 1930 poet Carl Sandburg published a collection for young readers titled “Early Moon”. His introductory essay titled “Short Talk On Poetry” referred to the adage: 5

The father of a great Irish poet once remarked, “What can be explained is not poetry.” There are people who want a book of verse to be like the arithmetic—you turn to the back of the book and find the answers.

Sandburg referred to the adage a second time on the next page:

It was something like this in the heart of the philosopher who declared, “What can be explained is not poetry.”

In 1950 Sandburg penned the preface to the “Complete Poems Carl Sandburg”, and he stated that William Butler Yeats echoed the words of his father: 6

Picasso gives his slant as to his own ignorance related to that of others, “Why should I blame anybody else but myself if I cannot understand what I know nothing about?” And in Chicago we heard William Butler Yeats quote his father, “What can be explained is not poetry.”

In 1969 an article in “Parents'” magazine credited Sandburg with the saying: 7

Remember that a poem “doesn’t have to rhyme,” as Eve Merriam tells us in the title of one of her four books of poetry for children; and “what can be explained is not poetry,” as Carl Sandburg puts it in his introduction to Early Moon, an anthology of poetry for children (Harcourt).

In 2001 “Random House Webster’s Quotationary” included the following intricate entry with a doubly-nested ascription: 8

What can be explained is not poetry.
WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS (1865-1939). Recalling his father’s words. In Carl Sandburg, “Notes for a Preface,” Complete Poems, 1950

In conclusion, John Butler Yeats should receive credit for this quotation. His son William Butler Yeats saw the quotation because it appeared in a letter written to him by his father. Carl Sandburg included the quotation in two of his books, but he properly credited John Butler Yeats.

Image Notes: Public domain picture of John Butler Yeats accessible via the U.S. Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. Portrait circa 1900 of William Butler Yeats by his father, John Butler Yeats. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Lori Busch whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1917, Passages from the Letters of John Butler Yeats, Selected by Ezra Pound, Note: Four hundred copies of this book have been printed, Letter date: September 6, 1915, Quote Page 15, Cuala Press, Churchtown, Dundrum, Ireland. (Verified with scans from archive.org) link
  2. 1917 August, The Athenaeum, Book review of “Passages from the Letters of John Butler Yeats”, Quote Page 413, Column 1, The Athenaeum Office, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1918 June, Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, Edited by Harriet Monroe, Volume 11, Number 3, Mid-America Awake by A. C. H., Start Page 155, Quote Page 157, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1920 October 25, University of Texas Bulletin, Number 2060, Rossetti the Poet: An Appreciation by Albert Edmund Trombly (Adjunct Professor of Romance Languages), Chapter 8: Conclusion, Quote Page 85, Published by The University of Texas, Austin, Texas. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1978 (original edition copyright 1930), Early Moon by Carl Sandburg, Illustrations by James Daugherty, Chapter: Short Talk On Poetry, Quote Page 27 and 28, A Voyager/HBJ Book: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1950, Complete Poems Carl Sandburg by Carl Sandburg, Section: Notes for a Preface, Quote Page xxii, Harcourt, Brace And Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  7. 1969 August, Parents’ Magazine & Better Family Living, Volume 44, Issue 8, Poetry is the natural language of children by Nancy Larrick, Start Page 46, Quote Page 47, The Parents’ Institute: A Division of Parents’ Magazine Enterprises, New York. (ProQuest)
  8. 2001, Random House Webster’s Quotationary, Editor Leonard Roy Frank, Topic: Poetry, Quote Page 606, Random House, New York. (Paperback edition; Verified with hardcopy)