These are some thoughts I had during Mass, related to my being asked the other day why Modern Poetry is rather difficult to read. My response then was rather halting and not well-formed. This one is not so halting, though how well-formed it is, is fairly debatable. I wrote down the following on the back page of Rainscape’s John Donne book, which I had brought to Mass with me for spiritual reading:
“Part of the function of poetry is to teach each successive generation how to see, and see clearly. We live in an age of fragmentation, of shattered glass. Consequently, modern poetry needs to be more difficult it is shattered the way the world in which it was created, the world which breathed life into it, is shattered. But also, it must instruct us in seeing and understanding our world. It cannot do that as well by being too direct.”
So I wrote that, and, as I walked home from Mass, I thought about it, and thought about that importance of poetry in teaching men to see. I thought that modern poetry, being ours, has a very real kind of importance, but that older poetry, Shakespeare, and Donne, and Wordsworth and Blake and Sidney and certain of the Medieval English lyrics and Vergil and Pindar and Homer, play an incredibly important role in teaching us how to see. This is part of why they have lasted through the ages, because they have done this successfully for each successive Us.
This all made me think of this beautiful poem by Richard Wilbur, which I’m sure I’ve posted here before but, being unfamiliar with my own blog (it’s been nearly a year since last I posted here) I thought I might as well put up anew:
The Beautiful Changes
One wading a Fall meadow finds on all sides
The Queen Anne’s Lace lying like lilies
On water; it glides
So from the walker, it turns
Dry grass to a lake, as the slightest shade of you
Valleys my mind in fabulous blue Lucernes.
The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier, and proves
Any greenness is deeper than anyone knows.
Your hands hold roses always in a way that says
They are not only yours; the beautiful changes
In such kind ways,
Wishing ever to sunder
Things and things’ selves for a second finding, to lose
For a moment all that it touches back to wonder.
Those first lines of the last stanza seem to have a special relation to what I am talking about here. “Your hands hold roses always in a way that says / They are not only yours.” There is something in that about poetry. It is ours, but it isn’t only ours. (Um, echoes here of a Rainscape post.) It belongs to us and to the ages. Shakespeare’s verse belongs firstly to his age, but also to us and those who come after us. The same with all of the poets I mentioned, going back to Homer, the poetic father of the west. Of us.
I came back from Mass, and had a long conversation about poetry, and all of these thoughts with Rainscape (partly to apologize for having written in his John Donne book) and in the course of it he told me that his favorite professor (the one whose sparkling instruction apparently colored this post) quoted Auden the other day as saying that poetry is always two things. Poetry is first an achievement that does honor to the language in which it was written. And second, it is a message from a person. He added that if he cannot hear a person speaking in a poem he quickly loses interest.
ANYWAY, so I don’t want to waste your time any further, and chances are the only worthwhile thing I’ve done here is to post a beautiful Richard Wilbur poem, which I suggest you read slowly and deliberately and lovingly, but that is what I’ve been thinking about.
NOW I have to go read Moby Dick, and figure out what it is that Herman Melville has left behind for us.