A poet is constantly in a state of reassessment as long as he desires to be a vital presence, whether on the page or in the world. So I have continuously and obsessively turned the object, the diamond of poetry, round and round trying to appraise its value, consider its flaws and marvel at its magnitude. At first, I believed that poetry might help everyone. Then I thought poetry might make the poet better than he otherwise would be without it. But the more I write and the more I read and the more I live, the less convinced I am of poetry’s power to transform because circumstances determine meaning and value. When one is thirsty, really thirsty and on the brink of death, a sip of water means more than all the beautiful things ever unearthed.
This reminds me of a poem written by Tu Fu for his friend Li Po. He says:
The rich and high positioned fill the Capital,
while you, alone, are careworn and dejected.
Who says the net of heaven is cast wide?
Growing older, you only grow more preyed upon.
One thousand autumns, ten thousand years of fame,
are nothing after death.
The effects of poetry, whether fame or oblivion, are temporary and ephemeral compared to death and the worries death and weakness bring with them. The distance between two friends, two lovers, a mother and her child, increases when each departure inches closer and closer to the last. What poetry can do in this situation is minimal, though that difference, much like the one Frost ruefully comes to at the end of “The Road Not Taken,” is all the difference there is. In a world, where our lives are over-determined, not by political or historical forces as much as cosmic and universal forces, what used to go by the names of Fortune and Fate, what is a sentient person to do? How is he to love or mourn or choose?
My essays aren’t usually personal, but the urge to write always is. The tone of a post—however weary, happy, joyful or grief-stricken—relates, as even the most impersonally sounding poem relates, to the writer’s inner goings-on. But today I want to be more explicit. While writing the above, my grandfather’s situation came to mind. He is eighty-nine years old (I wrote this some time ago), and he and his wife, my grandmother, have split up. The details are hardly as interesting as the fact. The images we carry around with us, and the meaning we make of those images, determine our expectations and our experiences. The way of poetry forces the poet to see things as they are. It is a moral obligation, I might have said once, but now I see it as yet another force, neither cosmic nor universal nor even aesthetic, which determines conclusions. I see the circumstance of my grandparents, and I can’t help but see it for what it is—further proof of the fragility of our bonds, of the horror of long life and the inconstancy of people, especially those on whom we are supposed to depend. There is, too, I have to admit, something hopeful in that both of these people, though advanced in age and staring down now only further loss and finally death, have managed the will to make any change in their life circumstances whatsoever, and have mustered further the will to resent and hate and deceive and connive, when the flesh, a young man imagines, should want nothing more than the surrender he calls wisdom.
My mind swerves away from easy answers and sentimentalizing not because I am aloof from the situation—I know, for instance, that my only response to this is a sustained patience and sympathy for my grandparents and some rebuke for my parents and aunts and uncles, who have ignored this situation too long—but because poetry has taught me to avoid easy answers, whether these come in the guise of unreasonable despair or hope. Poetry teaches wisdom, but not the wisdom of philosophers, who idealize. It teaches a kind of wisdom neither natural nor ethereal. This wisdom isn’t transcendent, and it isn’t humble. It is practical but not the way practical is usually meant, that is, as the most expedient route to a given end.
But I stand on the precipice of the same mistake. While reading and teaching, for the umpteenth time in the last few years, Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” I was struck this time by a sentence early in the essay, which I had read many times but have never comprehended entirely. Or I should say that while I comprehended the sentence, I never fully apprehended how strange a thought the sentence expressed, and neither had I ever fully appreciated how influential this thought has been on me. I will cite the sentence here. Emerson says: “To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius.” Perhaps what feels most peculiar about this passage, at first, is how ordinary the sentiment appears. But if it appears ordinary, it is because Emerson’s influence on the American character has been so complete that very few would question the felt belief that each of us may possess a special genius, which, could we find the courage to follow it, must be rewarded and, heeding us, so would everyone else who cares to follow and listen. Amen, I say.
Whitman must have Emerson in mind, when he claims in “Song of Myself,” that “[h]e that by me spreads a wider breast than my own, proves the width of my own[.]” For most, this idea while paradoxical isn’t completely unfamiliar. We learn, or ideally, we ought to learn from our teachers, how to learn. They don’t teach us what to see but how to open our eyes to see. This is what poetry, at its best, can do, we might conclude. And I have concluded this, thinking that the way to learn to watch “that gleam of light that flashes across [the] mind from within,” as Emerson puts it, means practicing poetry. Further, this line of thinking suggests that, should one learn to do this successfully, what one might see will be true, not only for one man but for all people. But I don’t think that the above gleaning comes close to touching the strangeness of Emerson’s and, through Emerson, Whitman’s idea that what we find true in our private heart isn’t so very private at all, but is instead genius and universal genius at that. It is convincing to the point of intoxication, this idea, because it means that, however distant your fellow human beings and their beliefs seem, they aren’t so very far away, and what stands between you and them isn’t so large a gorge as you first assumed. Really, what you need most, you have: that nonchalance, as a boy, you enjoyed without your knowing how precious it is.
This neutrality, as Emerson calls it, gets lost along the way as we abandon our own judgments and powers of judgment in order to appear consistent with our fellows and conform to society for the better securing of our needs, but could one do as Emerson prescribes, and poetry is as good a way to achieve this end as any—and maybe better because it is from a poem that Emerson comes to his understanding of self-reliance—one won’t remain neutral long. If I take the circumstance with my grandparents, and the other aging people I have known and the sick, too, the terminally ill (and I have known a few), and then consider, further, the tragedies, both big and small, of those I love and of my life, and look on them and try to understand, well, how can I remain neutral long? One must come to conclusions, however temporary those conclusion are, but after a while, our experiences leave a residue, which accumulates like creosote, and when a spark too hot touches the flue, a new flame from the old crust rushes upward. In this light, we see everything new in the shadow of that old greenish flame. This doesn’t even consider one’s temperament, which causes all pure light to shift, as if through a prism, into distortions.
Poetry does little to point out what is true, and, even if it did happen upon that truth, it would be as likely or more likely to be misunderstood as not. It is as if the poet, dried up in the desert and on the brink of death, asks his mirage for a glass of water, and what he gets from him, even from his mirage, isn’t satiety, but merely another mirage, less convincing than the first. Or, should he be an even greater poet, perhaps the mirage vanishes and he consumes the dust left there. Or, and this isn’t a thing even to be wished for, he comes by chance or will to the end of the desert and sees before him the emptiness of the sea. What should he do, if he gets there? The sea is as treacherous and foreboding a landscape as the desert dunes. The ships are far off, and the breakers violent. If the poet laughs a little, looking out, or coughs, or swallows hard and launches for the horizon again, he isn’t mad, but just the man for the job, who asked for it and now that it has come, he knows exactly what he has to do. But had he come from the sea to discover on the leeward side of the dune a farther waste, well, he might know surely his next step because, after all, what choice is left him.
Schopenhauer and Pascal both conclude that life’s essential character is suffering, but this conclusion takes the point of view only of our situation. All poetry, of any lasting success and beauty, concludes something similar or attempts to ameliorate this conclusion with consolation. Rilke, who one of my favorite people in the world once called road-kill—to be fair, this favorite person said we’re all road-kill—finds a consoled life useless, and so should every courageous poet. There is something practical in this advice, however, which is still consolation. It implies that out there suffering with you are others, perhaps only one (say, Rilke himself), but still he is there. The illusion of romantic love promises the same and fame is the promise that there are many out there, who would understand and adore or scrutinize. This, to me, seems even more useless than the distractions Pascal derides or the compassion Schopenhauer suggests is the duty of those who understand the nature and persistence of our suffering. Just above, the poem I cite from Tu Fu comes closer to the mark because it states merely that, compared to death, fame and wisdom (“one thousand autumns”) can mean nothing to the individual who suffers and, one might add to that, neither can any of these consolations, whether mere consolations or the ones that substitute.
Shakespeare’s sonnet “Since brass, nor stone,” convinces most when it assesses Time’s ravishments. The last couplet, while lovely, beautiful even—though, to me, more ironic than sincere—consoles not at all. Though the sonnet form and Shakespeare’s sonnets and this one particularly have endured these several hundred years, and men still have breath to breathe and eyes to see, from the point of view of cosmic Time, all the lines the bard ever wrote are inconsequential, small. Even to say they are minor irritants would be too much like arrogance for a wise man to bear. This isn’t to laud the virtues of humility, as Eliot has. To rely on any human virtue would be equally useless in this way. The difference between the most notorious man, as a man, and the most virtuous may be merely a line or two or an almost imperceptible tonal shift, written whimsically in the margins of the Doomsday Book.
Hope, if it is to be hope at all, must undermine all conventional definitions of hope. Dickinson attempts this, when she composes the poem, where hope is a thing with feathers. It is the tension between the pauses and stops of the poem, thanks to her peculiar and essential and essentially peculiar punctuation, and the insistence of the poem’s surface that this hope-bird’s song never stops at all. That Higginson revises Dickinson’s poems to regularize the syntax and diction and therefore its tone ought to have caused Amherst’s most famous ascetic to spin in her grave. But it didn’t, anymore than Horatio’s outrageous misinterpretation of, his failure to listen to, Hamlet’s last words could cause Hamlet to be seen by the boneheaded Fortinbras clearly. Instead, Hamlet—whose apotheosis is a clarity bordering on banal—is buried as a soldier and called, without irony—though I am inclined even now to give Horatio more credit than that—a sweet prince. When Emerson says that greatness is being misunderstood this scene comes to mind because Hamlet’s greatness—such as it is in the last moments of the play—is so thoroughly misunderstood. The astute reader of the play might conclude that this is Hamlet’s final jest. Life and our deaths are ultimately a fiction. But I find his last words, which break off his theatricality with plainness, death’s conquest over even the strongest of consciousnesses and, perhaps, the only appropriate and certainly the most beautiful of responses.
The greatness here in the end isn’t all that remarkable. If anyone quotes those lines now, he misrepresents them almost as seriously as Horatio does but without Horatio’s excuse. Horatio, having been charged to draw his breath in pain a little longer to tell Hamlet’s tale, must needs out-Hamlet Hamlet, if he can. Friendship, in which poor Horatio still believes, forces him to attempt this fool’s errand. If Hamlet had survived the final act of the play, Horatio ought to have known, the sweet prince would have just as likely rescinded his request, revised it, or denied having requested it altogether. Horatio’s failure here is as serious as Fortinbras’, though harder to apprehend because we, like Horatio, want to believe Hamlet’s character is redeemable, if we could only understand it and him. If we could understand, couldn’t we, too, be included among those geniuses that do? But it may be more appropriate to side with Fortinbras and unapologetically misunderstand and salute Hamlet as the bier-bearers bear him away to be given all the honors due a solider and a prince. He would have proven, if the circumstance were otherwise, quite royal, sure. But circumstances aren’t ever otherwise.
I said above that poetry has taught me not to accept easy answers, but that isn’t true. It is life itself that has taught me that. Poetry, on the other hand, has hurt as much as it has helped, especially when it comes to erroneous conclusions. The only positive quality poetry may possess is that it acts as a fulcrum, or some other rude tool, helping us lift loads that otherwise crush us. Usually, we are safe from serious injury. Ordinary burdens only tax us so much, but when poetry tempts us to heft the impossible to lift, we begin talking about death as if we knew something about it. Or, worse, confuse life for poetry and end up despising both.
The problem isn’t one of aesthetics. I’m not speaking of the value of beauty above ornamentation. Instead, I see this as a problem of expectations. If I have hoped, I have hoped too much. Now, having seen the failure of hope (and poetry and faith) to help, I can’t return to a simpler understanding. Neither can a man, having had his heart broken, return again to that disaster. What Job’s so-called comforters can’t understand, and what Job eventually must, is that there may be a paradigm larger than the one they know and in which they ought to place their trust. Job’s relationship toward the god he meets, his attitude of humility, seems to me to be as ironic a stance as the poet of the Job book could render. It isn’t a mystery to him why Job has suffered, and so God’s power, in the end, seems arbitrary and cruel. Before the mystery of the universe, in so far as there is mystery, what else can a man do but cover his head in ashes? But there is no mystery here. Whatever Job suffers, he suffers because God allows him to suffer it.
Here, for me, poetry and faith are almost synonymous. Each is a trope, which suggests a stance toward the divine. A poem is an act of faith, and all acts of faith suppose such a relationship to the universe. What the appropriate proportions of that formula are, however, must differ as the circumstances differ. Had Job raged against his god, and had he received more pain and suffering as the result of his contempt for God’s power, neither Job nor the poet of the Book of Job would be better or worse off. That all is restored to Job only suggests a temporary situation, which this capricious God might, should he be tempted, snatch away again. What sort of faith does revering or cowering or rejecting this God require? None. It is not-faith. But it isn’t not-faith because of a lack on Job’s part or ours. Rather, it is not-faith because of what Job knows and what we, Job’s readers, have come to understand.
*This essay was first written and finally abandoned in March 2012