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.

Continue reading What Can Be Explained Is Not Poetry


  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

If They Turn Their Backs To the Fire, and Get Scorched in the Rear, They’ll Find They Have Got To ‘Sit’ on the ‘Blister’!

Abraham Lincoln? Francis Bicknell Carpenter? Carl Sandburg? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Apparently Abraham Lincoln employed a vividly powerful metaphor when discussing the people’s responsibility during an election. The precise phrasing is uncertain. Here is one version:

If the people turn their backs to a fire they will burn their behinds, and they will just have to sit on their blisters.

Would you please help me to find the correct phrasing and a precise citation?

Quote Investigator: Lincoln died on April 15, 1865, and the earliest match known to QI appeared in an 1866 book of reminiscences by U.S. painter Francis Bicknell Carpenter titled “Six Months at The White House with Abraham Lincoln: The Story of a Picture”.

Carpenter wished to paint a picture commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation, and he met with Lincoln about the project in February 1864. He was given space for a studio within the White House, and he worked on the painting until it was completed for viewing in July 1864.

Carpenter’s book contained many anecdotes about Lincoln. One of Carpenter’s unnamed friends was the private secretary of a cabinet minister. In August 1864 the friend was tasked with presenting to Lincoln an assessment of the upcoming election. Unfortunately, the prospects seemed gloomy. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

My friend said that he found Mr. Lincoln alone, looking more than usually careworn and sad. Upon hearing the statement, he walked two or three times across the floor in silence. Returning, he said with grim earnestness of tone and manner: “Well, I cannot run the political machine; I have enough on my hands without that. It is the people’s business, — the election is in their hands. If they turn their backs to the fire, and get scorched in the rear, they’ll find they have got to ‘sit’ on the ‘blister ’!”

This citation is substantive, but the accuracy of this quotation is dependent on the veracity and the memory of Carpenter and his friend. The figurative framework of fire and blisters has a long history as shown below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If They Turn Their Backs To the Fire, and Get Scorched in the Rear, They’ll Find They Have Got To ‘Sit’ on the ‘Blister’!


  1. 1866, Six Months at The White House with Abraham Lincoln: The Story of a Picture by F. B. Carpenter (Francis Bicknell Carpenter), Chapter 68, Quote Page 275, Hurd and Houghton, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link

Legal Advice: Pound the Facts, Pound the Law, Pound the Table

Carl Sandburg? Alan Dershowitz? Jerome Michael? Jacob J. Rosenblum? Oliver Wendell Holmes? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: A few years ago I saw a famous quotation about legal strategy attributed to a celebrity professor: 1

Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz shares with his students a strategy for successfully defending cases. If the facts are on your side, Dershowitz says, pound the facts into the table. If the law is on your side, pound the law into the table. If neither the facts nor the law are on your side, pound the table.

But I thought that this saying was originally from a Columbia professor named Jerome Michael and not from a Harvard professor. Could you investigate this?

Quote Investigator: There is good evidence that Jerome Michael used a version of the saying while teaching, but the adage was in use before he graduated from Columbia Law School. QI has traced it back ninety-nine years and will present selected citations in reverse order.

Continue reading Legal Advice: Pound the Facts, Pound the Law, Pound the Table


  1. 2007 March 4, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Pounding the Table About Border Episode by Ruben Navarrette Jr., Page E3, Section: Weekly Review, Fort Worth, Texas. (NewsBank)