To write poems before midlife begins, really, is nothing much. Nothing truly vital competes for one’s consciousness like it will soon. And the longer we make adolescence, the less a risk writing poetry is for as long as one depends on the various supports of the world. But once one becomes unsponsored – and it is in midlife that this becomes the case, or might become the case – to steal a moment or two from the tumult of being to scribble a song, a gripe about the world or a hymn of praise, becomes akin to the most heroic feats. It is the triumph of the spirit over the requirements of an adult life, whose adult duties include the all of everything or so it can sometimes seem. Of course, there is something illusory about the adult experience, just as the experience of childhood is also a dream. No one person is responsible for it all. And yet that is the experience a husband or a wife has, or a father or a mother records. I have said elsewhere that an adult poetry must be as vital, as attractive and as relentless as life itself. It is only this full-throated poetry that might justify the sacrifice writing poetry, beyond the meridian, requires. It must spring from the spirit’s necessity.
When Dante ends the New Life, he claims that he will begin writing a poem for Beatrice when his powers are equal to the task. The young man, the one who writes the very impressive little book of sonnets and songs, must wait until his consciousness blossoms fully before he can address the larger subject of the largest of loves. But it is his exile from the sphere of adult doings – Dante was cast out of Florence, just as his midlife began – that allows Dante to become a party of one. Every poet, in his heart, makes this decision or comes to this conclusion. He nurtures a part of his consciousness which is apart from the goings-on of the adult world. This part grows big, and when it does, it sees what is. The best and healthiest of these –what else can one call it but the spirit itself–the best of these spirits come to know love, the big love of the universe, fiercer and more merciful than our puny human love, but also exactly the measure of pity one needs to learn to love one’s neighbors, for instance.
Grief, profound grief, can cause a similar exile and revelation. I’m thinking now of C.S. Lewis’ little book reflecting on his wife’s death. There he comes to many bright conclusions. Of course, one’s consciousness might have to be predisposed to the poetic spirit, but a predisposition isn’t enough. One must choose to tend to that place apart. Thoreau and Emerson, I think, would call this apartness solitude. A religious might call it paradise or Eden, the right now, which is an always and forever, but also a nowhere and a never. It is this sphere, which on the surface seems least useful to the world. It is curtailed by instruction and experience, until in many it atrophies. It is the sense of wonder and awe and terrific fear, which causes one to lose one’s breath. It is not for everyone to cultivate this garden. For some, it would make little sense. Their desire for the large and wondrous is quenched by the little the world offers in this regard. But for those who would have more, or who must have more – because some blow has shoved them back – poetry becomes the very courage necessary for reintegration, though not into the whole again, where one is merely a part, but toward wholeness, where one is both the missing shard and the healed vessel.
The process I am describing isn’t, as some might think, a journey from partness to apartness and back to partness. Rather, it is a realizing of apartness and, following that realization, another comes, which is the point of it all. Poetry, I used to think, was how it had to be done. Still, this is true for me. Then, I thought merely it was the best way to reach this end. I’m not prepared now to say this at all. Rather, I would conclude that poetry, real and true poetry, is how each poet becomes a party of one. If one wants to, one might say that poetry is a trope for something larger and without a name. That which “flees” as Dickinson says. Or say that it is an activity of the spirit with many names. I don’t mean to make this more serious than it needs to be. I’d rather not risk sounding like a zealot or a mystic. I think there is something altogether practical about poetry, as there is in participating in religious ceremonies. But one doesn’t begin writing poetry for practical reasons. And certainly, one doesn’t continue to write poems, when so much else requires so much of one’s energies, because of some imagined gain. The gains of poetry are essential in that they touch the most genuine qualities, and only when they do are they poetry.
Every poem is a labor of love. And all love is heroic. Mothers are heroic, fathers are heroic, husbands and wives and children are heroic. And it is what is poetry in them that causes them to act as if there were no distance between themselves and another. Poetry clears a space for love to blossom. It is like prayer. It is a country church or a chapel, where one learns the words which light the world. There the candles are lit. The incense burn on the altar, and the congregation all kneel at once, all stand at once, all sing in harmony. Even the thin or old or poor voices contribute to the song. And the sleeping child wakes. His eyes are open. He smiles or he cries, and he is soothed.