I fear that I’m not a very good friend sometimes. I can be thoughtless and absentminded, and even when I think to call the people I love–and I do love them–the phone seems suddenly to weigh ten tons, and I haven’t the strength to lift it. What can be said of my relationships with my friends is doubly true of my relationships with family. I know that as a son, a brother and a husband I have much to make up for.
On occasion my students have accused me of arrogance, and they are right to do so. I can be arrogant. And I’ve been called diffident, but then again, if we are two strollers moving in opposite directions, I can be also exceedingly chipper. When my wife and I were living in a summer cottage on the small island of Shelter Island, we were affectionately referred to by the locals as the nice couple who lived behind the mini-golf. Those years, in that cottage behind the mini-golf, on that island between the two forks of Long Island’s fish’s tail, were the happiest in my life, so if I were particularly friendly or nice (a word whose origins suggest idiocy, strangely), my circumstances and not my temperament can be credited. As far as temperament goes, I’m with Emerson who believed it to be unalterable. A sore loser in childhood will always and forever be a sore loser, though he might work on and all but conquer the symptoms of that inner loathing of defeat. And one inclined toward magnanimity will always and forever be, putting aside a bad day or occasional misjudgments, magnanimous. If character is fate, then it would be better to have been born to angels than ordinary human beings.
It has been my position–or rather my conviction–that luck plays a far more essential role in our lives than character does. Be as cautious as you like and still calamity lurks just outside the door. Be as careless as you like and still a fool is spared the consequences of his foolishness. But lurk is the wrong verb here. Luck is far too indifferent to lurk. Whatever catastrophe touches our lives, whatever happiness or joy or pleasure we take from this world, these joys and catastrophes seek us out blindly, indifferently. If our house is spared the lash of the hurricane or is uprooted by the winds, catastrophe doesn’t care and joy minds not. Our marriages, our loves, even our habits are determined, the very nature of them shaped, more by luck than by any other force. So what does this mean to the poet who once believed that through the work of being an artist he might, as Rilke discovers and commands, change his life?
Perhaps the best poetry offers in the way of change is that it might bring us to a better understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe, in the world, in our society, in our families and in our other relationships. Our minds are changed, when we meditate on our circumstances, not our circumstances. Therefore, it is dangerous to believe–and this is as true for poetry as it is for talk therapy and other programs, including spiritual ones, which rely on knowing oneself–that much can be made of these new understandings, when and if they come. A poet is more likely to be wrong in a new way than he is to be made suddenly right. And then whatever rightness he may experience is usually temporary and, finally, it may be said that his good fortune is indeed fortunate, that is, a matter of chance, or it has been caused by some other mis-recognized influence.
Why must it be that the good in our lives should be attached to some meaning or purpose? Auden says in a poem I was reading earlier this morning† something along these lines: who doesn’t believe he was meant to be? And Whitman claims that we are lucky to be born and, therefore, lucky to die, though to me his tone here feels more ironic than elsewhere in Song of Myself. The problem with luck, to most people, is that the virtues we associate with character become meaningless, things like justice and love and so on. Job’s comforters struggle with the fact that Job’s punishment doesn’t jive with what they know of Job’s character. They must conclude, then, that Job is hiding something sinister from them or from himself. King Lear cries on the stormy heath that he is a man more sinned against than sinning. Who hasn’t felt like this on occasion? Yet rarely is it that anyone concludes he doesn’t deserve the happiness he feels and even rarer still is one who says this and means it. But deserves, as Clint Eastwood’s character in the Unforgiven points out, has nothing to do with it.
As for poetry, change means superficial change, that is, a change of style. A poet develops from inarticulate groans and grunts into more patterned forms of speech until finally he reaches, if he’s lucky, eloquence. Eloquence means, for some, more beautiful poetry. But it might also mean, as Stevens says, plainly to propound, that is, eloquence could be an achievement of a clarity akin to prophetic vision. The happiness, then, of the poet has little or nothing to do with typical human happiness. This doesn’t mean, as some have concluded (John Berryman believed, for instance, that ordeal was necessary for poetic insight) that a poet must suffer to be a poet. This would mean, as it is supposed to be in tragedy, that pain leads to redemption. But the great lesson of King Lear is otherwise. Lear’s pain and loss are un-redemptive and, therefore, senseless. If this is true, it may also be true that our joys are just as senseless as our sufferings. Beautiful weather may cause us to sing but while the meeting may or may nor be auspicious, it has little to do with our essential worthiness or unworthiness. Cancer patients whose dispositions are sunnier and who laugh more are no more likely to survive treatment than their gloomier co-sufferers. The only difference lay, according to a study I read, in the quality of the time spent in treatment but not the outcomes.
This may be where poetry becomes important again, even essential. Because false expectations and unreasonable hopes cause more dissatisfaction than whatever our current circumstances are actually, poetry’s promise of clarity and insight keeps us from such errors of judgment. I said above that catastrophe and joy seek us out blindly, indifferently, but an important detail has been left out of that equation. We may also make our circumstances worse if we should attempt to avoid our fates or meet them too soon. All our struggling and striving may do more to hurt and harm us than if we remain still and quiet. But we must remember that stillness and quiet can’t call the good to us anymore than it can promise us inoculation from misfortune. What poetry does is make us still enough not to welcome to our bosom more pain than might otherwise be our lot but it also dissuades us from tossing aside the good and the pleasurable too soon, when we possess them. Those changes will come and do to us what they will. Ours is to endure, which is a kind of love, until even that last virtue becomes obsolete and, happily, we go.
†I wrote this post several weeks ago.