Don’t look back, Satchel Paige is supposed to have said, someone may be gaining on you. Don’t look back, Orpheus was advised, you may find your earlier poems better than the ones you will write tomorrow. Lot’s wife looked back at Sodom and was so shaken by the sight of the Red Sea swallowing the city that she became salt. Look back only if the mess you have made of your life leaves you eager to reach a future that will offer a fairer prospect. Otherwise cover your eyes, before blame blinds them the way Oedipus’s pin put out his. However, Paul Valéry warns us that no one “can deliberately walk away from any object without casting a backward glance to make sure he is walking away from it.”
At eighty-one years, only the past is likely to have any length; greed and regret will have eaten the present, which is at best a sliver of cake too small for its plate, while the future fears it may cease before having been. I hear it running to get here, its labored breathing, like an old man on the stairs. Lust and rage, Yeats rightly said, attend one’s old age.
So it is in a spirit of disobedience that I look back at what I may have done rather than toward all that remains to be encountered, coped with, perhaps yet accomplished. I say “may have done” because what one has really done is never clear and certainly never comforting. Rarely does one say, “I may have married her but only time will tell.”
Your station in the literary world, whatever that might be, does not matter much if you’ve spent your life chasing words with Nabokov’s net. That’s still where the results of your life went, into the killing jar, sentenced to a verbal smother, pinned in place, a display that’s initially a cause of mild indifference, and then evermore ignored.
Looking back, it is less painful to concentrate on the kind of thing that concerned me, rather than on the messes I made or on the few imaginary triumphs I may have enjoyed. Looking back I find I fit the epitaph Howard Nemerov once wrote for himself in Gnomes and Occasions:
Of the Great World he knew not much.
But his Muse let little in language escape her.
Friends sigh and say of him, poor wretch,
He was a good writer, on paper.
It turns out that these preoccupations, these bad habits, these quirks, number at least eight, though I am sure I am ignoring the ones that really matter. They are: naming, metaphoring, jingling, preaching, indicting, theorizing, celebrating, translating.
Critics still write of me as if my interest in words was an aberration. Yet Adam’s task has always seemed to me to be, for a writer, the central one: to name, and in that way to know. It wasn’t true for Adam, for whom all names were fresher than the daisy, but it is true for us now: a name no longer merely points something out and distinguishes it in that manner from the rest of the world; every name stands for all that has been thought, felt, said, perceived, and imagined about its referent, and represents all that has been discovered during explorations of its indigenous concepts during two thousand years. And since we humans have the deplorable yet entrancing habit of naming things that do not exist, the realm of names is larger than the realm of things as much as the population of China exceeds that of New York state. This passage about naming trees comes from my first novel, Omensetter's Luck, and concerns my unfortunate character, Henry Pimber, who will end up hanging himself from one of the branches of the trees he sings about.
“The path took Henry Pimber past the slag across the meadow creek where his only hornbeam hardened slowly in the southern shadow of the ridge and the trees of the separating wood began in rows as the lean road in his dream began, narrowing to nothing in the blank horizon, for train rails narrow behind anybody’s journey; and he named them as he passed them: elm, oak, hazel, larch and chestnut tree, as though he might have been the fallen Adam passing them and calling out their soft familiar names, as though familiar names might make some friends for him by being spoken to the unfamiliar and unfriendly world which he was told had been his paradise. In God’s name, when was that? When had that been? For he had hated every day he’d lived. Ash, birch, maple. Every day he thought would last forever, and the night forever, and the dawn drag eternally another long and empty day to light forever; yet they sped away, the day, the night clicked past as he walked by the creek by the hornbeam tree, the elders, sorrels, cedars and the fir; for as he named them, sounding their soft names in his lonely skull, the fire of fall was on them, and he named the days he’d lost. It was still sorrowful to die. Eternity, for them, had ended. And he would fall, when it came his time, like an unseen leaf, the bud that was the glory of his birth forgot before remembered. He named the aspen, beech, and willow, and he said aloud the locust when he saw it leafless like a battlefield. In God’s name, when was that? When had that been?” (63–64)
I have never been able to break the denominating habit. In a recent piece, “Emma Enters a Line of Elizabeth Bishop’s,” I managed to cram the names of 110 weeds into one paragraph.
Writing has almost always been difficult for me, something I had to do to remain sane, yet never satisfying in any ordinary sense, certainly never exhilarating, and never an activity that might satisfy Socrates’ admonition to find a logos for my life, as I felt it surely had for the authors I admired: even Malcolm Lowry’s dissolutely drunken sprees, even Hart Crane’s beatings at the hands of sailors, beatings he sought out as he ultimately sought the sea; even Céline’s meanness, a bitterness that ate through his heart before it got to his shoes and ate them, too; even these malcontents, though nothing justified their wasted ways, their anger, their multiplication of pain, might be, by their works, somewhat saved, their sins hidden under sublime blots of printer’s ink.
Number two: whoring and metaphoring.
One aspect of writing was easy, was unstoppable, and that was the flow of imagery that ran through my head like a creek in flood—no—like the babble of voices around a bar at happy hour—no—like a stream of ants toward a source of sugar—oh no—like carp rise to a dimple of bread—oh no, oh no—a cloud of gnats, a giggle when tickled. An attack of bats. I could swat away six and still write eight. It was a curse disguised as a blessing. I was always looking at the world from another word. The wolf spider roams at night from field to field in search of prey, while the mantis sits still as a twig by a flower’s sweetened cup until some sucker comes to nose it, and then she, the madam mantis, sups. But these facts interested me mainly because I knew people like that. I was one—a waiter—the sort of waiter who is always looking the other way. So I wanted, when I named a tree, to invoke a plant equal to every phase the plant had seen. I didn’t simply want to make a tree with roots, bark, branches, trunk, twigs, nesting birds, needles and leaves; I wanted to imagine ones that were telly poles, too, bore lynch limbs, and had branches to which possums were driven by packs of unpleasant dogs; I wanted trees with doors in them, clothes trees where dress suits were hung; trees that had family histories dangling from their diagrams.
I am not observant of persons, so if I imagine someone whose skin is as smooth and pale as a grocery mushroom, it is the mushroom that did it. Among the thousands of my photographs there may be three (the fairy-tale number) that misinclude people, and even then they look like barely promising piles of rags. Recently, in an essay on François Rabelais, I wrote that while his work looked wooly, its sense was consistent, unified, pure yet iridescent as though silk had swallowed water. That last image was a simple pun on watered silk that let me gloat a quarter of an hour before its time on the meter was up.
I am an octogenarian now and should know better, but I recently let a sentence reach print so embarrassingly bad its metaphors seemed frightened into scattered flight like quail. I meant to shame myself by reciting it to you, but I find I cannot, sparing myself, not you. Instead I’ll quote something that’s perhaps passable, from a story called “Order of Insects” in the collection, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. For this piece I did indeed study cockroaches, and came to admire them immensely (few humans measure up: haven’t the humility, the wiles, the longevity or body armor, the moves), but it was as a metaphor made into a symbol that I wanted to use them. A housewife, who narrates the story, has begun finding dead roaches on her downstairs carpet in the morning, apparently killed by her murderously playful cat. As she inspects them she finds a beauty in their construction that imperils her opinion of her own life. She wonders what would happen if we wore our skeletons on the outside, like a costume for Halloween, and concludes this way:
“I suspect that if we were as familiar with our bones as with our skin, we’d never bury dead but shrine them in their rooms, arranged as we might like to find them on a visit; and our enemies, if we could steal their bodies from the battle sites, would be museumed as they died, the steel still eloquent in their sides, their metal hats askew, the protective toes of their shoes unworn, and friend and enemy would be so wondrously historical that in a hundred years we’d find the jaws still hung for the same speech and all the parts we spent our life with tilted as they always were—rib cage, collar, skull—still repetitious, still defiant, angel light, still worthy of memorial and affection. After all, what does it mean to say that when our cat has bitten through the shell and put confusion in the pulp, the life goes out of them? Alas, for us, I want to cry, our bones are secret, showing last, so we must love what perishes: the muscles and the waters and the fats.” (164–167)
Number three: jingling.
When you are a cowed and confused kid, you say to the stupid question grownups always ask with such condescension that you want to bruise their shins: I hope to be a fireman when I grow up. But of course you really want to be a poet. Everyone wants to be a poet. It is the beckoning inaccessible peak. How many poets have told us? At twelve I wrote awful Edgar Allen Poe, much as Poe had—jingle all the way; at fourteen I was as interminable as Walt Whitman; I extolled the groceries and made lists of buffalo hunters and Indian scouts. I did patriotism, I’m ashamed to say, and praised mothers. My god, I was even against drink. Most of all, what I wrote was bad. Not just youthful. Not just undisciplined. Bad beyond excuse. After years of futile wondering, I think I now know why. My irreverence, my hatred for authority, my distrust of tradition, my enjoyment of the comforts of middle-class life and my contempt for its philistine values; my habitual “up yours” and “in your eye” attitude also inhibited my ability to absorb conventional poetic forms. Instead I was attracted to the urchins among them, indecorous lines and unruly stanzas. Ezra Pound, an early hero, too melodious and poetical by half much of the time, would nevertheless burst out, to my delight, with “Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace,” a sestina in praise of bloodshed and war, while at other times condemn such belligerence, as he does in Hugh Selwyn Mauberly’s unforgiving anger at the First World War:
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization . . .
Or when, in the same poem, he wrote that “his true Penelope was Flaubert,” I was immediately moved, because Flaubert has always been my favorite hater, and I was grateful to Pound, too, though absurdly, because he was the first poet I knew to use the word “fucking” in a poem. Even if they were panthers that were up to it.
I despised pop tunes yet I imbibed their forms. When Gertrude Stein wrote: “My name is Rose, my eyes are blue, my name is Rose and who are you? my name is Rose, and when I sing, I am Rose like anything,” I was perhaps more pleased than was reasonable. I practiced the limerick in secret and dallied with other cheapjack devices. My career as a poet ended in doggerel and japery. Yet I found a use to which I might put them, these dogs. For my novel, The Tunnel, I invented a historian named Culp, whose subject, I meanly said, was the American Indian, and I claimed that he was energetically engaged in writing a limerickal history of the world, as well as a cycle of such rhymes that shared the same first line: “I once went to bed with a nun.” I got good at it—at the limerick, I mean—and began to do to it what I couldn’t do to the sonnet: torture its type.
Here are three from the Carthaginian period:
Over the Alps on an elephant
went Hannibal out of his element,
for the elephant’s motion
was so like the ocean,
he continually punic’d
upon his best tunics,
and his slaves had to wash off the elephant.
Dido wrote to Aeneas,
Why don’t you sail by and see us,
I’m here all alone
with my lust and no phone,
half dead of desire,
my crotch quite on fire,
which I’ve heard you’d put out with your penis.
Dido said to Aeneas,
Surely you’re not going to leave us?
you wouldn’t flee home
just to found Rome,
which will fall anyway,
so you might as well stay
to enjoy all my sweet panaceas.
I once went to bed with a nun
by pointing a pistol at one;
said she, with a quaver,
that’s a good big persuader,
but what is the point of the gun?
Lastly, my favorite:
A nun went to bed with the pope,
who tied her four limbs with a rope.
It’s not that, my dear,
you have something to fear,
but I want you quite still
so nothing will spill
when your holiness is filled by the pope.
The compulsive doggerel syndrome does not confine itself to dirty verses, otherwise it would not be called “compulsive,” but turns up in almost every line of my prose, in sound patterns that get pushy, even domineering. The narrator of The Tunnel, when a child, is caught by his father stealing pennies to play the punchboards so popular in the Depression era, and this is what happens as judgment is made:
“Low, dry, slowly formed, the pronouncement came, my father’s voice full of pause and consideration, like maybe a judge’s, with a kind of penal finality even in midsentence, midphrase, and unlike the rather pell-mell stridency of his customary dress-me-downs and more commonplace curse-outs, those scornful accounts of my character which always included disclaimers of responsibility for my failures, for my laziness (not a whiff in his family), my shiftiness (in contrast to the stand-up nature of the relatives around me), my myth-making, my downright lying (whose cause could not be anywhere discerned), my obstinacy, too, and my prolonged stretches of pout, sulk, and preoccupied silence which I seemed to take an inordinate joy in inflicting upon my undeserving family, who had always done their level best
. . . and all the rest . . .
fed me, washed me, made sure I was dressed,
repaired what I broke, cleaned what I messed
. . . and all the rest . . .
so I could live like someone blessed,
and bow my head at God’s request
. . . and all the rest . . .
but I had fouled my own sweet nest,
and cracked the hearts in their fair chests
. . . and all the rest . . .
so they would treat me, henceforth, as a guest
until such time as I went west
. . . and all the rest . . .
to seek my skuzzy fortune or confessed
my crimes, with remade mind, and soul distressed
. . . and all the rest . . .
whereupon, with sins redressed,
they might—of my presence—make the best:
charges which were rapidly related, as if memorized, and hurled headlong at my head, between my eyes, as I always thought, causing my knees to bend a bit each time as if to duck, though ritually, a shower of stones.”
Back in the days when there were inner tubes—items none of you now will remember—air would bubble up in the rubber like a rhyme, just before it burst.
Number four: preaching.
I have been characterized as—accused of, sentenced to—sentences. Well, it is easier to study the sentence than the story, and you do have to write a lot of sentences if you want to pretend to write prose. But I have always been equally interested in paragraphs. I like, for light reading, texts on rhetoric: not just those of Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian, but also those of George Campbell, Richard Whately, Joseph Priestley, Hugh Blair, and Thomas de Quincy. In such works, and only in them, is the question of the form of the paragraph as well as the shape of the phrase addressed, and the lost art of eloquence taken seriously.
Any plowboy can become a father, Mencken famously remarked, and “Every man, as he walks through the streets, may contrive to jot down an independent thought, a shorthand memorandum of a great truth,” De Quincey says. “Standing on one leg you may accomplish this. The labour of composition begins when you have to put your separate threads of thought into a loom; to weave them into a continuous whole; to connect, to introduce them; to blow them out or expand them; to carry them to a close.” (181) Just as De Quincey carries his own paragraph to a close by carrying it to the word, “close.”
So I have tended, when conceiving characters, to prefer fulminators—preachers and teachers—and allowed them to consider the misfortune, more important to me than any other, apparently: that of missing the opportunities and obligations offered you by the luck of having life. Here is one such preacher, Jethro Furber, speaking to his rural Ohio congregation in Omensetter's Luck:
“I ask you now to ask yourselves one simple foolish question—to say: was I born for this?—and I ask you please to face it honestly and answer yea if you can or nay if you must.
“You rise in the morning, you stretch, you scratch your chest.
“All night, while you snored, the moon burned as it burned for Jesus or for Caesar.
“You wash, you dress.
“At breakfast there are pancakes with dollops of butter and you drip syrup on your vest.
“So it’s for this.
“You lick your lips.
“Ah, then it’s this.
“You slide your pants to your knees and you grunt in the jakes.
“It’s for this?
“Light’s leaving a star while you stare at the weeds; centipedes live in the cracks of the floor; and the sun, the Lord says, shines on good and evil equally.
“So you were meant for this? You’ve your eyes, your human consciousness, for this?
“Well you’re not entirely easy in your mind. The weather’s been poor. There are the crops to get in, payments to make on the farm, ailing calves to tend. Friends have promised to help with the haying, but they haven’t, and you’ve got to keep your eldest son somehow away from that bargeman’s daughter—a bitch with cow’s teats.
“The mind’s for this?
“Wipe yourself now. Hang your pants from your shoulders. There are glaciers growing. But you wish your wife weren’t so fat and given to malice, and your thoughts are angry and troubled by this.
“Very well—you can complain that I’ve chosen trivialities in order to embarrass you.
“Eat, sleep, love, dress—of course you were born for something better than this.”
I carry this refrain on into The Tunnel, a novel finished thirty years later, where it turns out that men were made by their alleged creator to murder one another, and to invent the bulldozer in order to dig mass graves.
Along with hundreds of others, I was once asked by a French newspaper to state, in a word, why I wrote. I replied in a sentence suitable for a courtroom. I write to indict mankind. I suppose I could have said: I write to convict mankind, but man has already done that without my help, and, besides, I wanted the use of the pun.
So—on to number five: indicting.
After my account in The Tunnel of the Death Pit at Dubno (which I am not going to read here because of our time limitation), my narrator observes, in his usual double-edged fashion:
“Millions die eventually, in all ways. Millions. What songs, what paintings, poems, arts of playing, were also buried with them, and in what number? who knows what inventions, notions, new discoveries, were interred, burned, drowned? what pleasures for us all bled to death on the ice of a Finnish lake? what fine loaves both baked and eaten, acres of cake; what rich emotions we might later share; how many hours of love were lost, like sand down a glass, through even the tiniest shrapnel puncture?
“Of course one must count the loss of a lot of mean and silly carking too. Thousands of thieves, murderers, shylocks, con men, homos, hoboes, wastrels, peevish clerks, loan sharks, drunkards, hopheads, Don Juans, pipsqueaks, debtors, premature ejaculators, epileptics, fibbers, fanatics, friggers, bullies, cripples, fancy ladies, got their just deserts, and were hacked apart or poisoned, driven mad or raped and even sabered, or simply stood in a field and starved like wheat without water; and we shall never know how many callow effusions we were spared by a cut throat; how many slanderous tongues were severed; what sentimental love songs were choked off as though in mid-note by the rope; the number of the statues of Jesus, Mary, or the pope, whose making was prevented by an opportune blindness or the breaking of the right bones; what canvases depicting mill wheels in moonlight, cattle at dawn, children and dogs, lay unexecuted on their easels because of the gas, talent thrown out as if it were the random pissing of paint into a bedpan; so that, over all, and on sober balance, there could have been a decided gain; yet there is always the troublesome, the cowardly, midnight thought that a Milton might have been rendered mute and inglorious by an errant bullet through the womb; that some infant, who, as a precocious young man, might conceive a Sistine ceiling for the world, and humble us all with his genius, as he made us proud of our common humanity . . . well, there is always the fear that this not-yet youth has been halved like a peach; that Vermeer, Calderón, or Baudelaire, Frege or Fourier . . . could conceivably, oh yes, just might possibly . . . have . . . been . . . gently carried to his death between a pair of gray-haired arms, which, otherwise, were no longer even strong enough to disturb a clear soup.” (33–35)
I wrote The Tunnel out of the conviction that no race or nation is better than any other, and that no nation or race is worse; that the evil men do every day far outweighs the good—the goods being great art and profound knowledge scientifically obtained.
The poet who has been my unwitting companion in this enterprise, Rainer Maria Rilke, similarly wondered, as his own career grew to a close, whether mankind had justified its reign of terror with some offsetting achievements. He thought about the grandeur of cathedrals. But, really, was it enough? I quote from my translation of the Seventh Elegy:
Wasn’t it miraculous? O marvel, Angel, that we did it,
we, O great one, extol our achievements,
my breath is too short for such praise.
Because, after all, we haven’t failed to make use
of our sphere—ours—these generous spaces.
(How frightfully vast they must be,
not to have overflowed with our feelings
even after these thousands of years.)
But one tower was great, wasn’t it? O Angel, it was—
even compared to you? Chartres was great—
and music rose even higher, flew far beyond us.
Even a woman in love, alone at night by her window . . .
didn’t she reach your knee?
That “but”—“But one tower was great, wasn’t it?” That plaintive, despairing “but”—as if anything played or painted or built or composed or inscribed—or a little love, honest for a change, and felt by another—could weigh as much as a sigh in the balance against Dubno’s Pit and its corpse high pile, or any massacre, even if it is that of fish in a poisoned lake.
I have taught philosophy, in one or other of its many modes, for fifty years—Plato my honey in every one of them. Yet many of those years had to pass before I began to realize that evil actually was ignorance—ignorance chosen and cultivated—as he and Socrates had so passionately taught; that most beliefs were bunkum, and that the removal of bad belief was as important to a mind as a cancer’s excision was to the body it imperiled. To have a head full of nonsense is far worse than having a nose full of flu, and when I see the joggers at their numbing runs I wonder if they ever exercise their heads or understand what the diet of their mind does to their consciousness, their character, to the body they pray to, the salvation they seek.
Yet I had to admit, wondrous as he often was, that D. H. Lawrence was a fascist chowderhead, Eliot an anti-Semitic snob, Yeats fatuous, Blake mad, Frost a pious fake, Rilke—yes, even he—wrong more often than not, and that even Henry James . . . well . . . might have made a misstep once alighting from a carriage. But—there it was again, that “but,” that “yet”—yet Henry was great, surely, if anyone was. How did the artist escape the presumably crippling effects of his intellectual idiocies? Here I had activity number six to help me. It was theorizing. Not about truth. About error. Skepticism was my rod, my staff, my exercise, and from fixes, my escape.
“I believe (I use this word here with the greatest irony) . . . I believe that the artist’s fundamental loyalty must be to form, and his energy employed in the activity of making. Every other diddly desire can find expression; every crackpot idea or local obsession, every bias and graciousness and mark of malice, may have an hour; but it must never be allowed to carry the day. If, of course, one wants to be a publicist for something; if you believe you are a philosopher first and Nietzsche second; if you think the gift of prophesy has been given you; then, by all means, write your bad poems, your insufferable fictions, enjoy the fame that easy ideas often offer, ride the flatulent winds of change, fly like the latest fad to the nearest dead tree; but do not try to count the seasons of your oblivion.” (Finding a Form, 35)
Life may be a grim and grisly business, but the poet’s task and challenge remains unchanged. Rilke wrote:
Tell us poet, what do you do?
— I praise.
But the dreadful, the monstrous, and their ways,
how do you stand them, suffer it all?
— I praise.
Celebrating is the seventh preoccupation then. Because to write well about anything, and it might be mayhem, is to love at least the language that you are attaching to it, and therefore to give it glory. This result can be disconcerting, and there are readers, writers, critics, who feel that such attention as the artist often gives to the awful is itself awful.
What could be more natural than the celebration of other writers? My most recent collection of essays, A Temple of Texts, is a book of praise—except, that is, for a piece about Evil, about which I had little good to say. The title piece contains fifty paragraphs on behalf of books that in one way or another influenced me. This is the entry for Henry James’s The Golden Bowl:
“Here is the late phase, and what the late phase can do. James was born in a late phase and grew phasier all his life, like a jungle vine. By the time he was truly old, he was beyond time, and need not have marked his birthdays. The Golden Bowl, the critics said, was James indulging himself, James parodying James. Critics are a dim lot. It was James being James right enough. I could have listed half a dozen of his novels (from The Portrait of a Lady through The Spoils of Poynton to The Wings of the Dove and The Ambassadors) or half a dozen of his tales, and called upon his travel work as well, so that to place only the great Bowl here is a bit perverse. I do so because what affected me most about Henry James lay not in some single work itself, but in his style—that wondrously supple, witty, sensuous, sensitive, circumloquatious style—and the Bowl is that style brought to its final and most refulgent state. Like Valéry in the realm of the mind, James was a nuancer, and believed in the art of qualification, the art of making finer and finer distinctions (an art that some have said is the special province of philosophy). And Henry James formed the phrase—the slogan—the motto—which I would carve on my coat of arms if I had one: ‘Try to be someone,’ he said, ‘on whom nothing is lost.’
“He is also supposed to have said, at the moment of his death, ‘So here it is at last, the distinguished thing.’ What he actually said, of course, was ‘So here it is at last, the extinguishing thing.’ People will embroider.”
And the column given over to Sir Thomas Browne:
“The full list, the final role of honor, would include all the great Elizabethan and Jacobean prose writers: Traherne, Milton, Donne, Hobbes, Taylor, Burton, the translators of the King James Bible, and, of course, Browne, or ‘Sir Style,’ as I call him. [. . .] Of course, there are great plain styles. Of course, positivists, puritans, democrats, levelers, Luddites, utilitarians, pragmatists, and pushy progressives have something to say for themselves. There are indeed several musicians after Handel and Bach. And there are other mountains beyond Nanga Parbat. But. But the great outburst of English poetry in Shakespeare, in Jonson, in Marlowe, and so on, was paralleled by an equally great outburst of prose, a prose, moreover, not yet astoop to fictional entertainments, but interested, as Montaigne was, in the drama and the dance of ideas. And they had one great obsession: death, for death came early in those days. First light was so often final glimmer. Sir Style is a skeptic; Sir Style is a stroller; Sir Style takes his time; Sir Style broods, no hen more overworked than he; Sir Style makes literary periods as normal folk make water; Sir Style ascends the language as if it were a staircase of nouns; Sir Style would do a whole lot better than this.”
I am sometimes accused, like James, of retreating into language, of being a good writer—on paper. It is certainly where I often send my characters—villains or whores, most of them—into a world of words. Is there happiness, fulfillment, to be had from the canvas, the stone, in the score, on the page? Nope, I wrote:
“So even if you hope to find some lasting security inside language, and believe that your powers are at their peak there, if nowhere else, despair and disappointment will dog you still; for neither you nor your weaknesses, nor the world and its villains, will have been vanquished just because now it is in syllables and sentences where they hide; since, oddly enough, while you can confront and denounce a colleague or a spouse, run from an angry dog, or jump bail and flee your country, you can’t argue with an image; in as much as a badly made sentence is a judgment pronounced upon its perpetrator, and even one poor paragraph indelibly stains the soul. The unpleasant consequence of every such botch is that your life, as you register your writing, looks back at you as from a dirty mirror, and there you perceive a record of ineptitude, compromise, and failure.” (Finding a Form, 52)
Translating allowed me to get close to poetry in a way my own feeble efforts would never permit, and—yes—when I had finished a poem of Rilke’s I would sometimes imagine I had written it, and that his sounds were mine (as, in English, they had to be), that he was once more alive in me, in all of us who could hear him, say him, be him. I concluded my book, Reading Rilke, with this paragraph and one poem, as I shall conclude this reading and these remarks:
“The poem is thus a paradox. It is made of air. It vanishes as the things it speaks about vanish. It is made of music, like us, ‘the most fleeting of all’ yet it is also made of meaning that’s as immortal as immortal gets on our mortal earth; because the poem will return, will begin again, as spring returns: it can be said again, sung again, is our only answered prayer; the poem can be carried about more easily than a purse, and I don’t have to wait, when I want it, for a violinist to get in key, it can come immediately to mind—to my mind because it is my poem as much as it is yours—because, like a song, it can be sung in many places at once—and danced as well, because the poem becomes a condition of the body, it enlivens our bones, and they dance the orange, they dance the Hardy, the Hopkins, the Valéry, the Yeats; because the poem is a state of the soul, too (the soul we once had), and these states change as all else does, and these states mingle and conflict and grow weak or strong, and even if these verbalized moments of consciousness suggest things which are unjust or untrue when mistaken for statements, when rightly written they are real; they themselves are as absolutely as we achieve the Real in this unrealized life—are—are with a vengeance; because, oddly enough, though what has been celebrated is over, and one’s own life, the life of the celebrant, may be over, the celebration is not over. The celebration goes on.”
THE DEATH OF THE POET
He lay. His pillow-propped face could only stare
with pale refusal at the quiet coverlet,
now that the world and all his knowledge of it,
stripped from his senses to leave them bare,
had fallen back to an indifferent year.
Those who had seen him living could not know
how completely one he was with all that flowed;
for these: these deep valleys, each meadowed place,
these streaming waters were his face.
Oh, his face embraced this vast expanse,
which seeks him still and woos him yet;
now his last mask squeamishly dying there,
tender and open, has no more resistance,
than a fruit’s flesh spoiling in the air.
(Reading Rilke, 186–7)