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

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

When Two Men in Business Always Agree, One of Them Is Unnecessary

William Wrigley Jr.? Ezra Pound? Henry Ford? Apocryphal?

wrigley09

Dear Quote Investigator: Constructive debate about future plans is essential in a responsive and vibrant company. Here are three versions of a popular business adage:

When two men in a business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.
When two men in business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.
When two men always agree, one of them is unnecessary.

This expression has been ascribed to the poet Ezra Pound, the industrialist Henry Ford, and the businessman William Wrigley Jr. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive support for crediting the saying to Ezra Pound or Henry Ford. Attributions to Pound and Ford appeared only in the 21st century.

William Wrigley Jr. built a company and a fortune by selling chewing gum in the United States and around the world. In 1931 Wrigley was interviewed in “The American Magazine” and stated that he preferred an employee with backbone who was willing to challenge him and sometimes tell him “I think you’re wrong”.

The article titled “Spunk Never Cost a Man a Job Worth Having” reported that Wrigley disliked the yes-man who reflexively concurred with all his statements. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Likewise, one of the biggest pests in business is the carbon copy—the fellow who always says: “Yes, Mr. Wrigley, you’re absolutely right.”

Perhaps meaning: “Have it your own way, you old buzzard, what do I care!”

Business is built by men who care—care enough to disagree, fight it out to a finish, get facts. When two men always agree, one of them is unnecessary.

The passage above was the earliest strong match known to QI. The topic was business, but the statement did not include the word “business”.

Thanks to top-notch researcher Barry Popik who obtained the database evidence that pointed to the citation above.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading When Two Men in Business Always Agree, One of Them Is Unnecessary

Notes:

  1. March 1931, The American Magazine, Volume 111, Number 3, Spunk Never Cost a Man a Job Worth Having by Neil M. Clark, Start Page 63, Quote Page 63, Published by The Crowell Publishing Company, Springfield, Ohio. (Verified with scans thanks to Charles Doyle and the University of Georgia library system)