It is part of the poet’s job to get used to his inner rhythms, those seemingly predictable patterns which, from a distance, map his temperament. I was reading some old poems yesterday and found that, as I have always hoped, the new poems I have been writing and the ones I wrote several years ago not only address, as if part of a single poem, the same subjects and attitudes, but also, in some cases, I found that I use the same or similar language to do so. One of the frustrating aspects of all this is that what may feel like a revelation, some new vista, say, stumbled upon while out walking, may only be the same old field, the same old tree. I ask myself: Have you merely forgotten? This experience casts into doubt one of the possible uses of poetry, which is to come to an understanding of self.
I remember a long time ago, reading Augustine. Somewhere in his Confessions, he exclaims: Who do I know better than myself! And I thought then – as I seem to be thinking now – that we never know ourselves so well. And if there is anyone who tried to know himself, it was Augustine. I think what he says, from a certain point of view, is true. We might know ourselves better than we know others, and that includes the animate and the inanimate, the solid and the ethereal world, but we know ourselves but slightly. Even the best and most perceptive of human beings catches himself only in snatches and glimpses. It is as if, rising from sleep, some terrifying and beautiful dream, thirsty, half-blind and exhausted, we passed a shadow in the hallway and thought, touching its cheek: Who?
And it isn’t that we contain multitudes that makes knowing ourselves so difficult either. We might contain many points of view and many possibilities – I doubt it most days – but what is so frustrating, and the more I write the more frustrating it becomes (though some days it amuses me), is that even the most familiar gestures and sentences and dreams startle us again and again and again. I don’t remember where I read this, but someone said that, when we are young we hear a knock on the door, and think: Yes! And then, later, when we are old and tired, dozing in a chair, we hear a knock on the door, and think: Yes…
A poet returns to the same images over the course of his career, and when he is young these reoccurring images seem some hint, some indication that his work might come to something. These, he thinks, are the vestiges of the angels. God’s footprints left for me to follow. Then, he rounds the corner again. The sun shines on the leaves, the spring flowers before his eyes, the animals emerge from their underground lairs. The world is refreshed, but he is weary. His hair has fallen out. His clothes are ill-fitting. He has seen this all before. These revelations aren’t what he thought they were. These footprints are his, the ones he left – when was it? – last spring, walking this way.
Wisdom is, perhaps, the beginning of an understanding that the essential truths are always just beyond us. And that what seems to be a revelation may be merely a familiar thing we have forgotten. It is as if we return to childhood often, some perfect day, the sun high in the trees and the birds singing, and it is to this day that we return finally. However carefully we have chronicled these hints, these images, they come always as a mystery. And it is of this surprise we tire. When I look at a Rembrandt self-portrait, this is what I see. He stares back at us, as if to say: Would you really exchange places with me, if you could?