My Facebook friend Surazeus Simon Seamount has written a long poem (some say the longest) about the lives of the philosophers. Another, Brendan Dempsey, has employed verse to narrate an attempt “to bring the Sacred back” after the death of God. And of course I have my two efforts in the long form (scroll down for photo).
Yeats remarkably said of his compeers at the Rhymer’s Club, “The only thing certain about us is that we are too many.” The same might be said of us. In actuality, in both situations, the framing words are wrong. “We” are the right number, or else insufficient, but never too many. T.S. Eliot wrote: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
It doesn’t much matter if your poem or my poem is the one to survive. If any do, that is miraculous enough. This is equally true in speaking of the slightest lyric as much as of the lumbering epic. Poetry is not so much the product of the lone practitioner struggling in his garret (though that may be a facet) nor even an aggregate of the same. He—as indeed Keats was—may be the sine qua non of poetry, but poetry arises from outside the poet. This is the perpetual paradox.
It is frivolous, for anyone over the age of Keats, to obsess about his place in the canon. Canons be the business of future scholars even on the Harold Bloom model. Does the significance of a canon penetrate outside the academy? Probably not.
What is the difference between the ravings of the madman and the prophetic cadences of the poet? Possibly none. At any rate, it is not ours to say.
The above thoughts, and the above lines from T.S. Eliot, have been in my mind a while. But the immediate catalyst of this post came from Dawn Potter, blogging today of “The Sadness of Poets Who Are Cruel to Their Own Gifts”. She writes of “a friend who is struggling… with the disconnect between how he perceives his talents (as minimal) and how others perceive them (as considerable).” My view is not so much that “hope would be hope for the wrong thing” as that her friend is paying attention to the wrong thing.
The preoccupation with “canon” is not mine, nor possibly her friend’s, but extends seamlessly from such an intellectual struggle.