The business of trying to write timeless poems reminds me of Langston Hughes’ declaration in a 1926 essay that a black poet who wants to be just a poet, not a black poet really wants to be white. Hughes makes the issue about the poet, and maybe unfairly distracts us by that gambit. But the really question has to do with the poem. That is what he is asking. He is asking how does one write a poem that is simply a poem and not a black poem? He has his own answers. For him, anyone who attempts to write a poem that is not black and that is simply a poem is unaware of the racial superstructure of American society in which “American Standardization” is essentially white. So this business of timelessness gets interesting when we think of how we are going to write a timeless poem. What does a timeless poem look like?
Our most common way of finding the timeless poem is to pull up all those poems from the past that we still read. We conclude that the fact that we are still reading then suggests that they may be timeless. That is, they are not constrained by time. Such poems, the thinking is, are so pure that that they manage to transcend the restrictions of culture, of historical moment, and of language, one assumes.
The quest for timelessness in poetry is essentially a platonic exercise. One must first presume a certain “isness” of a poem for this to work. The idea is that somewhere there exists a perfect poem—an ideal poem. The poet’s job is to try to achieve that essential poem, and when the poet does, she will have written the timeless poem.
We may not put it in those terms, but the very idea of a cannon with its list of great works of art that are a must read for anyone who might be serious about writing, grows out of this fundamental belief.
A friend poet of mine found it very exciting to discover in a book of poetry criticism, that someone had done a great deal of research into poetry traditions from around the world and had found that the qualities of a “good” poem were the same in all these traditions. For someone who had felt a little exercised by his students who claimed that he seemed not to be open to other poetic aesthetics (especially those of another culture), this was good news and an affirmation of his view that what he has known as great art was genuinely great art regardless of the culture trappings that may have given rise to that work. He also felt some relief that he did not have to feel bad about embracing certain poets for fear that he might be accused of xenophobia.
Essentially, he was encouraged by the confirmation of this platonic notion of an ideal poem. And this affirmation is critical because as a teacher of poetry, he is convinced that it is possible, I suspect, to teach people how to reach for such perfection and timelessness.
For my part, despite the assurances that this concept offers, I remain skeptical about what this ideal poem would look like. Must the timeless poem not have to deal with timeless subjects? After all, if the subject is not timeless, the poem cannot be timeless. Perhaps Billy Collins is on his way to timelessness when he eschews writing anything in his poem that would not puzzle some one in the 1950s. So he does not have computers in his poems, no i-Pads, not facebook, etc.
But all this distillation may produce a poetics that is bland and void of any genuine character. This is what I suspect. It seems to me that timelessness is a relative idea. For me timeless is related to longevity of relevance. I do think that while poems that manage to cross times and space have some great value, that quality is not the only one relevant to understanding the greatness of a poem. I also believe that the timely poem may be the one that dominates the writing process more than anything else. We write for our moment, for our generation, for our language. Eventually, all those things, like us, will be gone, and then what? Will our poems no longer be timely? Will they stand not chance of being timeless?
I don’t think so. I would suggest that we may actually miss the complex “timeliness” of many poems because we have lost much of the context for those poems. We read what we can into the poems and thus we continue to bolster those works, creating a context for those works to be read in our own image.
The quest for timelessness is a vanity, a pure vanity. It grows out of a desire to somehow defy death. It is arrogant because it grows out of a desire to be read by people long after we have left this earth. Finally, and most importantly, it is a quest for immortality, an old hunger in artists. The pleasure we get in the hope of a continued existence after we are gone is what drives out effort to write the poem that we hope will stay around. Sadly, such an effort is likely to generate, not great work, but quite mediocre and ordinary.
I have decided to stay focused on being present and writing for the present moment as fiercely and beautifully as I can. If I can find the richest pleasure in this—a pleasure that grows out of the pleasure others feel when I do this well—then I can be content as a writer.
Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...