Paul Valéry, The Art of Poetry, Translated by Denise Folliot, With an Introduction by T.S. Eliot, Bollingen Series XLV * 7, Pantheon Books, N.Y., N.Y.
From” A Poet’s Notebook,” pp. 177-178 (all italics are the author’s):
“The habit of long labor at poetry has accustomed me to consider all speech and all writing as work in progress that can always be taken up again and altered; and I consider work itself as having its own value, generally much superior to that which the crowd attaches only to the product.
No doubt the product is the thing that lasts and has, or should have, a meaning of itself and an independent existence; but the acts from which it proceeds, in so far as they react on their author, form within him another product, which is a man more skillful and more in possession of his domain of memory.
A work is never necessarily finished, for he who made it is never complete, and the power and agility he has drawn from it confer on him just the power to improve it, and so on. . . .He draws from it what is needed to efface and remake it. This is how a free artist, at least, should regard things. And he ends by considering as satisfactory only those works which have taught him something more.
This point of view is not that of ordinary art lovers. It could never suit them.”
I suspect not many people read Valéry these days, but this book has been with me a long time and I always keep it close at hand, reading bits and pieces of it now and then and always coming away with a feeling that whatever time I may have spent in his company has been well-invested. As Eliot says in his introduction,
“Why are Valéry’s essays worth reading, and with what expectation should we read them?. . . .We do not turn to Valéry’s art poétiquein the hope of learning how to write poetry or how to read it. We do not even turn to it primarily for the light it throws on Valéry’s poetry: certainly we can say as truly that if the prose throws light on the poems, the poems also illuminate the prose. I think that we read these essays, and I think people will continue to read them, because we find Valéry to be a singularly interesting, enigmatic, and disturbing author, a poet who has realized in his life and work one conception of the role of poet so amply as to have acquired also a kind of mythological status. We read the essays because, as Valéry himself says, ‘there is no theory that is not a fragment, carefully prepared, of some autobiography.’ We could almost say that Valéry’s essays form a part of his poetical works. We read them for their own sake, for the delight in following the subtleties of thought which moves (sic) like a trained dancer, and which has every resource of language at its command; for the pleasure of sudden illuminations even when they turn out to be feux follets; for the excitement of an activity which always seems on the point of catching the inapprehensible, as the mind continues indefatigably to weave its fine logo-daedal web.”