A few years ago I wrote a long essay called “Why Poetry Doesn’t Matter.” I only remember now the gist of that argument. And the conclusion went something like this. When considering the uses of poetry, we ought not to forget that poetry’s greatest power lies in its ability to reveal us to ourselves; therefore, every poem is both the record of such a revelation and an opportunity for one. If poetry isn’t important, I claimed, that is because either poetry has failed to reveal or, for whatever reason, the readers of poetry have ceased to look for revelation there. Anyone who has taken a class with me, listened to me talk about these matters or read one post of this blog knows that I haven’t strayed very far from this opinion. I still believe that the best poetry records the movements of the human spirit in its search for the divine. This is true whether one considers the work of the Hebrew psalmist, Shakespeare or the poets from the late T’ang Dynasty. Read sensitively one hears not only the voice of the poet but one finds also that which the voice attempts to evoke.
It was a few years after writing this essay that I applied its theory to the issue of teaching writing and especially the teaching of revision. I said that the better way to take Pound’s slogan “Make it new” is to understand that the “it” to which he refers isn’t the text, as pedagogues might have you think, or the world, as social scientists might have you think, but the self, the poet, his consciousness. For evidence I pointed to the work of poets, whose poems I thought best illustrate what I mean. I was particularly interested in the work of Stevens, in whose never-ending meditations I traced an evolution of the understanding of the spirit from a smeared window in a dilapidated house, shining with the gold of the opulent sun, to a rat come out to see. This evolution revealed, I said, that one’s attitude toward what “it” is, exactly, changes the more one encounters “it,” and the more frequent the visits, the more courageous the attempt, the clearer that image becomes. It may seem, at first, that that which is great in us is something sublime, but eventually we might understand that it, whatever it is, is small, curious, resilient.
These attitudes have shaped me in several ways. First, they have shaped me as a poet. I have said that the poems in my forthcoming collection are my daily attempts to right myself, and they are in this way. If I listened, I would know who and what I am. Knowing this, I might begin the long slow process of change from what I am to what I might become. Second, they have shaped me as an instructor. I see the value, and always have, of improving one’s writing. One must learn how to say, and then and only then can one begin to say it. But I have also emphasized a value far more essential, which might be considered a kind of listening that corresponds to intense meditation or earnest prayer. I remember attending a lecture given by a poet I admire, who claimed that this expectation in a classroom would be a fool’s errand. I admit that this is probably the case. After all, what right have I to monkey with the delicate and intricate activities of consciousness? But I have defended, and continue to defend the effort, by citing the tradition in higher education to cultivate the students’ critical faculties and to engage their imaginations. This is a sound and worthy argument, I think; however, it may have little or nothing to do with the aims I have outlined.
Why? Because the promise of revision doesn’t guarantee improvement necessarily, not in the critical faculties, not in the judgement and certainly not in one’s writing. Even the self, which I first claimed to be the direct beneficiary of this venture, stands in great peril. I’ve known this, or at least proclaimed this, for sometime. I think I may even have said as much in the earliest scribblings working toward that first essay on the subject. But I don’t think I really ever believed it. I think I was convinced, even when I said otherwise, that poetry – whatever shape it might take – could make the poet better, could make the individual better. How could it be a bad thing to widen consciousness? I said, as recently as my last post, that a poet writing poetry is better than he might otherwise be because he writes poetry.
And yet I wonder. I was very uneasy about posting that last post. Some of that uneasiness, I’m sure, must be wrapped up in the ambivalence associated with the publication of a new book and the greater ambivalence of having to encourage the purchase of that book. But there is something more than this false humility at the center of my dis-ease. I think it is rather this. What revision, really, in the end is needed? How can what is, ultimately, be improved? There has been lately in me a growing sense that, though things may be good or bad, nothing can harm or improve that which I have sought so hard to revise. One might look on the world, as it is, with great affection and love, but also with a little distance, and smile. I want to resist the ecstasy that comes usually at the end of these posts because I don’t think this perception ought to find wings. It is as grounded a sensation as I have ever felt, and amounts to feeling bound in on all sides, as perhaps I did once before I was born, and, at the same time, free, as I might again feel just before I go.
I don’t know how this understanding will affect poetry or teaching for me, but I know that it will. It already has. It is hard to say goodbye to an old way of thinking, especially one that has served me so well. But perhaps this isn’t so much a rejection of what I have thought and lived. Rather, it seems to me but another revision. Or perhaps it isn’t a re-seeing so much as a refining of vision. Who needs new eyes, when sight is so perfect as it is? The eyes submit to the impressions made by the world, as animals submit to weather, to living and to dying, without complaint. A poetry, and a consciousness, which learns to do as much, might be as pure as it is praiseworthy. This would be a poetry as vital as life. The object, then, of consciousness would be to come, at last, not to change itself from this to that, but to look upon God’s work and agree, It is good.