Why would anyone even want to do it anymore?
Fifty-two years ago I didn’t know what it was,
And yet I knew I wanted to do it too, like the idea of a mind
The self aspires to, the self a mind endeavors to become.
I still don’t and still do. Yeats and Frost, Pound and Eliot,
Stevens, Moore, seen as from a peak in Darien in a college course
With a syllabus, lectures twice a week, a final exam—
It might not sound transformative, but in an incidental way
What I am now, what I’ll die as, and how I’ll linger on
For the small while that constitutes an afterlife
Was there from the first day: the urgency, the anxiety,
The sense of something insisting to be said
Again, before the mystery and necessity drifted away.
It looks different now. What’s become of poetry
Are different kinds of poets, i.e., different kinds of people
Having nothing much in common but the name.
I miss the echo chamber, where you studied to become
Something unforeseen, recognizable in retrospect.
I miss the mystery, the feeling of history gradually unfolding
And the way it made no sense at all until it did.
In the afternoon of the author everything is there to see.
No one told me when I was starting out “that day so long ago”
That things become more and more familiar, then suddenly you’re old,
With nothing to do and nothing stretching out before you
To infinity, reducing whatever you did or had to say
To a footnote, skipped over in the changing afternoon light,
That finally becomes, at best, part of the narrative
In a MOMA of the mind. But I’m glad I did it anyway.
• • •
I thought I’d preface a collection of selected and new poems, Walking Backwards: Poems 1966–2016, that FSG will publish next year, with a poem that reflects on how I began writing poetry and on how it looks to me in retrospect. A few years ago I had a conversation with a very gifted younger poet in which I thoughtlessly rambled on about how much of the poetry I read by younger poets doesn’t engage me; and since then I’ve periodically tried to figure out why this might be so. I want to say at the outset that I have no patience at all with those “death of poetry” narratives that appear at intervals like clockwork: the idea that there was once a golden age in which poetry was both public and great is ridiculous, for poetry has existed longer than any other human art and has always served perfectly legitimate purposes that have little to do with high art. I’m less interested in poetry’s ostensible “decline” than in what drew me to it initially, and why whatever that was is something I find in it less and less frequently.
When I entered college I was committed to becoming a theoretical physicist, which had been my ambition all through high school. After a few semesters of additional courses in Greek tragedy, philosophy, and modern literature (English 206, in which I first read modernist poetry), I found myself majoring in philosophy rather than physics, and trying to write poetry. I’m not exactly sure what happened, but I have the sense of the ambition of physics—to understand the natural order obscured by the veil of conscious experience—being supplanted by high modernism’s equally ambitious and important project of exploring the vexed relation of conscious experience to its setting in that natural order. I didn’t see it this way at the time, but I’ve come to think of modernism as a continuation of, rather than a break with, romanticism, which is also focused on the relation of the self to the natural world. But where the high romanticism of The Prelude is optimistic, affirming the transcendence of the individual consciousness, the high modernism of Eliot or Stevens is pessimistic, with the self estranged from or threatened by its physical and social setting. Like romanticism, modernism takes many forms, but I still think of them as parts of an ongoing historical endeavor, one in constant need of renewal in ways that can’t be foreseen.
In the recent poetry that doesn’t engage me, I notice a lack of this ambition to belong to a continuing historical exploration (Keats: “I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death”). Ambition is complicated: right now I’m reading a book about Robert Lowell’s madness and its relation to his overweening ambition, and while he’s certainly a great poet, his willfulness and grandiosity make some of his work feel inert to me. But Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery are great poets, too, and in their works, ambition is cloaked by indirection and understatement. What seems crucial is the sense of an internal connection to the poetry of the past, not in the form of a deliberate repetition of a settled past, but by the anxious attempt to realize possibilities implicit in it without quite knowing what they are.
There’s also something more specific I seek in poetry and find less and less frequently, which, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic and pretentious, I’ll call a tragic outlook. Maybe it’s because I was reading and thinking about Greek tragedy around the time I started writing poetry, but the two are strongly associated in my mind. I don’t mean “tragic” in a conventional sense, with its connotations of downfall and disaster. Hegel thought of tragedy as characterized by an individual’s being subject to irreconcilably conflicting demands, and what I have in mind is a loose generalization of that idea, one perfectly compatible with happiness in any ordinary sense. It’s really the same as the tension I just associated with romanticism and modernism, between the individual subjective consciousness and its setting in the natural order. The former is completely unique, and yet a perfectly ordinary part of the latter. The tragedy, in the sense I mean, lies in the tension between these perspectives, and what I look for in poetry is not a lament for this dual aspect of our lives but an acknowledgment or at least a reflection of it. Yet the fact that I find it less in new poems than in poems I keep rereading doesn’t bother me. For one thing, it may be my own fault, a casualty of my narrowing range of reading as I get older (who can keep up with it all?). And even if its decreasing presence is to an extent a reflection of poetic fashion, it’s so rooted in the general structure of human conscious experience that it’s never going to disappear. Of course, as predictable as periodic “death of poetry” pronouncements are apocalyptic pronouncements that the character of human conscious experience is on the verge of changing. But I don’t believe them, for I don’t see how it can.
John Koethe has published nine books of poetry and has received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and the 1973 Frank O’Hara Award for Poetry. He has also published books on Ludwig Wittgenstein and philosophical skepticism, and is a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.