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Journal, Day Four
I keep obsessing about my sense of a poem as a made thing—feeling kneaded and shaped into ideas, or is it conditioned by ideas, pressed through the mold of mental forms to become an autonomous object that somehow recapitulates the process? Or should we think of the poem as the process itself, the conversion of perception or emotion into . . . something? And how are those conversions determined by the history of the mind that’s performing the transmutation—by what it’s read and done before? . . .
Imagine poetry in a world without a past. The possibilities would be thrilling—but so terrifying. What would it be like to know that your first utterances would determine the future of expression, set you on an inevitable path up the mountain? We imitate this fateful moment in miniature every time we—I was going to say pick up a pen; that really dates me, does it not?—sit down to write, of course, but our expressive pathways were laid down long ago. It’s the rare, protean writer who can truly change his style—I suppose the eternally restless Robert Lowell is the best recent example.
Older people today are obsessed with how little the young know of their heritage. A poet in his forties wrote me in outrage that writer friends of his were unfamiliar with John Donne. Is he a young fart? Not at all—just someone confronting the naked truth that most “writers” don’t read. And yet there still seems to be a whole world out there of deeply learned, obsessive true believers in the mysteries and rituals of the art of poetry. Just as, thank God, the mail at the office is continually full of resumes of kids who still believe in literature as a vocation, not just a job.
I’ve just come back from London and Paris. Britain, which used to feel embalmed in its history, seems to be proudly throwing away its past. And even in Paris, where the publishing business, protected by fixed prices, seems happily twenty years behind us, it’s difficult to find readers for the classics that used to be the staples of a certain kind of common reader’s devotion and enjoyment. As a publisher, I’m necessarily concerned with reading habits, and there’s no doubt they’ve drastically changed during my thirty years in the business. True, more books than ever are sold today, but it often feels that this means many, many more copies of a few bestsellers that “everyone” reads. Poetry, though, is miraculously free from this particular form of cultural conformism. It chugs along at its own impervious rate, safely below the radar screen. There are virtually no poets today, really, who speak to everyone who loves poetry, but the many constituencies all have their fans, and bookstore owners will tell you that the poetry section is a continually happening place.
But what is poetry that isn’t tied to a tradition, which is, after all what a language is? It’s amazing how what seems radical when it’s published turns out to be radically continuous with the tradition it furthers. Like Ginsberg’s “Howl,” which today feels as redolent of Blake and Whitman and the Bible as it is does of the Bowery. My hero Montale wrote that it’s the job of the present to see that some of the best of the past survives into the future. The present grabs at the past and hands it over misshapen, no doubt, and the torque is essential to the game; but the only way to learn to write is to read. As Helen Vendler said, it’s the poets themselves, not the critics or academics, who determine what the canon will be, by what they themselves choose to read, and write from . . .