I don’t subscribe entirely to the notion that there is nothing new to say under the sun. Though the human predicament hasn’t changed much in the last ten thousand years – we suffer ourselves to be born, navigate through a world hostile both inwardly and outwardly, and face death at every turn – there is still the peculiar revolutions of an individual mind, and therefore the possibility for discovery. Yet much of what we discover, and this is especially true for poets, has been said before and sometimes better. And I have found the more I say the more I think, How familiar. Then searching for the father of the newest revelation, I see that, indeed, it wasn’t some other who said it before, but that the other was me. I know what Stevens means when he talks about a repetitiousness. And so what troubles the poet isn’t that others have said what he has said before, but that he has said what he has said before. And if he is to say it again, then he must say it better.
In other posts, I have touched on this subject, and at times I have thought of this repetitiousness as a failing. My publisher and friend, Tim Miller, suggested it wasn’t a failing at all, but a kind of success. Perhaps it is a reassurance that what Emerson called temperament does govern each of us more thoroughly than fate or happenstance, particularly when it comes to our inner lives and our reactions to the outer world. The trouble then becomes, if you have set out, and found what you have set out to find – Jung found what he was looking for in his dreams, as he writes in his chapter on confrontations with the unconscious – then what is left to say? The poet who has set out, come to the point, and now stands naked in the interval, must face this question. Does he leap into the roiling or turn back for the house, which is but a little light in the trees?
Hart Crane leapt. Berryman leapt, eventually. Hamlet leapt, and instructed Horatio to absent himself from felicity awhile to draw his breath in this harsh world to tell Hamlet’s story. The eloquence which follows this command every reader of Shakespeare remembers perhaps more vividly than Hamlet’s last words. Though Hamlet, seeing into death’s heart, says, The rest is silence. Horatio, grief stricken, pronounces that flights of angels sing Hamlet to his rest. The noble heart that cracks is as much Horatio’s as it is Hamlet’s. The trauma of the loss stirs in Horatio a new found sensibility. Before he was antique Roman, a Stoic philosopher, but now, now he is a poet and his eloquence is what impresses itself upon us and not the truth of what he is saying, which after all contradicts Hamlet’s final revelation.
A similar transformation happens at the end of Joyce’s “The Dead,” when Gabriel, alone now, begins his journey westward. The widening of his consciousness comes not from a blow coming from without, but one that comes from within and, like Elsinore’s impostume, inward breaks, but instead of sickness, what Gabriel finds is a new health. A part of himself, which had been developing while he slept his life away, suddenly awakens. His eyes fill with generous tears. Finally, he is ready for a journey westward, where eyes wide open, he must conclude that this world will not be mastered and neither will those other souls which flicker into and then out of existence. The eloquence of that last paragraph impresses itself upon us because, somewhere in the rhythms, we hear the truth and know it, as Gabriel knows it, as Horatio, former student, former philosopher knows it.
What is this truth? No one can say it plainly and have it remembered. A poet searches for it because he doesn’t know but when he finds it he says, Yes. But this yes isn’t merely an affirmation of that which is. It is instead a tension between that which is and that which is well said. The end of McCarthy’s novel, The Road, is as inspired a piece of poetry as has been written in the last twenty years because though he talks of things which can’t be made right, can’t be put back, he also speaks of the deep glens where all things are older than man and hum of mystery. This voice is the father’s as the son has inherited it. McCarthy’s aim here at the end of the novel is as spiritual as it is literary. God’s breath passes from man to man. When Shakespeare says, “and this gives life to thee,” we are, for a moment as eloquent as the bard. And when the boy talks to his father, or Horatio recites the lines of Hamlet’s life, he is that wind which starts the all of everything.
In most men’s souls, and in every poet’s soul, there are two voices, and each announces a piece of the truth. It is true that that which lives dies. If you have been born, it is a hard way. But the truth, which tells us that and tells us so that, without lies or delusion, we say, Yes, well – that is the appropriate aim of poetry. This poetry will help us live our lives, help us breathe in this harsh world awhile, and know there is something beyond these disappointments, beyond these failures to say what might transform, like a magic spell, our circumstances. And if we stand on the precipice and look over the edge, this time we might say with ever-increasing eloquence not just what lies there but what we couldn’t say last time but hinted at vaguely, like a ghost.
*This post, saved as a draft, was written almost 5 years ago on March 5, 2011.