Letter from Poetry Magazine

Sven Birkerts Responds

by Sven Birkerts

It is clear that Emerson’s “The Poet” still speaks across the years to William Skelly, bringing news that is still news, and it speaks that way to me, too. Part of my experience of reading the essay, however, is feeling, or suffering, the tension of the gulf between what I want to believe in my readerly being—the idealizations of art—and what I encounter in the culture of my time. I mean the large-scale, not total, withering away of a felt secular connection to something that might be called the transcendent. I have to say that I disagree with Skelly’s assertion that “the essay still works whether you choose to buy into its portrayal of the poet or not.” To me that portrayal is its essential substance, and it rests on a recognition of something that I—at first hesitantly, but then more decisively—called soul. Remove that saturation from the essay and there is little logical structure—the logic of progression of Emerson’s prose equivalent of the “meter-making argument” proceeds directly from it. Under the literary spell of that conception, I find the work resonant in the highest degree, but when I look up from the page I feel as I might when wakened from the compulsion of an urgent dream. But isn’t this the beauty—the point—of art, that it has the power to cancel distances that are otherwise very real? That they are cancelled does not mean they do not exist. I am grateful for Skelly’s engaged response.

Originally Published: September 5, 2012

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This prose originally appeared in the September 2012 issue of Poetry magazine

September 2012
 Sven  Birkerts


Sven Birkerts is the author, most recently, of The Other Walk (Graywolf Press, 2011). He is director of the Bennington Writing Seminars and editor of the journal agni, based at Boston University.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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