Books: Poetry Notebook — Interlude (epilogue) |
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Interlude (epilogue)

While I continued to write articles and book reviews about poetry, I necessarily had a last chapter of my poetry notebook in mind, because my declining health told me that it might be wise to wrap things up. The trouble was, there was still so much to say. It’s in the nature of the subject. Poetry is finite — from all of its history, only some of it is of the first concern — but it is also limitless. In music, you don’t have to hear Beethoven’s late quartets very often before you realize that you will never stop responding to them. And in music, unless you are musician, your response is not complicated by technical questions. With poetry, there is not only the appreciation of a successful work, there are all the questions of how it got that way. It would be easier if the enjoyment of a poem put your mind to sleep. Instead, you are woken up. That degree of mental excitement can be awkward when your physical strength has begun to flag. The old urge to get everything said should by rights be stymied by the awareness that time is running out, but instead there is a renewed determination, entirely inappropriate to the resources available. ‘Old men ought to be explorers’ said Eliot in ‘East Coker’. That line has always given me the picture of some buffer tottering under the weight of an enormous backpack topped off with a collapsible canoe.

No, the time comes to let go. And anyway, what we say about a poem is a small part of its point. The large part is what the poem says about us. In his ‘Secular Masque’ of 1700, Dryden wrote:

All, all of a piece throughout;
Thy chase had a beast in view;
Thy wars brought nothing about;
Thy lovers were all untrue.
’Tis well an old age is out,
And time to begin anew.

We could talk forever about the easy pomp of those lines, but the first thing to do is to submit to them. Even if we won some of our wars and our lovers were as true as angels, the old age is bound to go out, and someone else will begin the new one. There is grief in all poetry, even when it is light-hearted. Poetry holds itself together, and eventually we ourselves do not. I started this book by recalling some of my young reactions. Since then, a lot has changed in the sociology of the art form that I chose, or that chose me. Women now exercise unquestioned the equality that once they had to fight for. Where once there were only hundreds of would-be poets, now there are thousands. But poetry remains what it has always been: the thing that hardly anyone can do. Most of the contenders are aware of that, but go on trying anyway. Since there are such thin rewards even for success, and no rewards at all for failure, we might as well say that they do it from instinct, and call the instinct divine. And besides, there will be no lingering embarrassment from failing to make one’s mark: a poem that doesn’t work will be forgotten even while it is being set down. When Keats said that his name was written in water, he was right about almost every poet except himself.