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Merwin's "Notes for a Preface"


If he starts trying to formulate statements about the undomesticated phenomenon that is poetry, the man who may have been, on occasion, a poet, is likely to realize that he is virtually as thorough a layman as anyone. He can remember a few times when he wrote what he took to be poetry, but the memory is as tragically partial as that of any particular moment of sex, and doubtless he knows that the instances, as they were real, are unrepeatable. He has learned this beyond question if he has ever been tempted, by cowardice, to repeat them, instead of trying to call the next real creatures from the ark. What gifts he can muster as a summoner do not necessarily preclude him from being able to generalize about what he is doing, but it often seems so, whether he listens to other laymen making the attempt, or makes it himself.

When statements emerge, privately he is likely to be reminded that they will help him less than his daily prayers that he may be condemned to continue. The statements usually apply to what has happened--as Aristotle would have told him--and he is concerned with something else.

Yet there is what appears to be, among all degrees of laymen, a more urgent demand for statements about poetry than for poetry itself. I am certainly no historian (though our time and its future increasingly appear to me like part of the past) and it is not a preference which I share, but I have watched it as an object for a while, and imagine that I have noticed some characteristics. Those who write or hope to write poetry (and these, for other reasons, are apparently among the few who still read it) often like to formulate, attend to, collect, and repeat statements about it by way of reliquaries toward which they can direct their hopes. The devotion is understandable; the reliquaries have an interest and often a beauty of their own; sometimes the relics are genuine and even still virtuous. It is hardly necessary to remark that when the cult of relics is exalted above the vision itself it is a sign of ultimate despair.

Of those who do not look to write poems but simply to read them, evidently even among these few there are many who would rather read about them. Some reasons for this are obvious and several have been presented many times. The fact, for instance, that reading, of the kind that poetry assumes, is a dying activity, and the capacity for it is flattered but not fed. This, coupled as it inevitably is with the fact that contemporary poetry makes, and is chiefly famous for making, greater demands on its readers than it did in days when it was sure that they existed and could read. For those who feel that they should know about modern poetry without having to submit to it themselves, the literature about it also provides the required digests for busy lives.

But these explanations are automatic and there must be others. The demand is often for a substitute, a translation, and is regularly made by those who are poorly acquainted, or uncomfortable, with the original idiom. But the original seems more and more frequently to be, not a particular mode of poetry, but the great language itself, the vernacular of the imagination, that at one time was common to men. It is a tongue that is loosed in the service of immediate recognitions, and that in itself would make it foreign in our period. For it conveys something of the unsoundable quality of experience and the hearing of it is a private matter, in an age in which the person and his senses are being lost in the consumer, who does not know what he sees, hears, wants, or is afraid of, until the voice of the institution has told him. Still, the voice of the institution has able apologists as well, some of whom go so far as to insist that it too is sometimes poetry.

At that point it is my turn to be glad not to understand. In any case, poetry, as I have been speaking of it, is found satisfying less and less often by those who still require any art at all. The search for substitutes in activities remarkable chiefly for their evocation of special wavelengths that are seldom within earshot, or for their deliberate abandon, points to the same abdication. But there is nothing original in observing that man, if that is what he still is, has chosen to pass mutilated into the heaven of the modern world, nor in remarking that the rift between experience (which is personal, and inseparable from the whole) and activity (which may well be communal, and shared with machines) was widening, and that the species had opted for activity, activity, both as a means and, it would appear, as an end, though it meant abandoning something, and perhaps something essential, of themselves. Poetry, and the need for it, may be among what is being left behind.

Any such intimation, of course, is likely to be assailed by rotarian voices reminding in puzzlement and dudgeon that never before has the institution paid so much money toward poetry, to say nothing of attention. In our land corporations and universities give of what they have to encourage it to be itself as much as possible. And, at least partly as a result, they may truthfully claim that the production figures have never been so good. But what they are pointing to is activity, which is what the institution is capable of fostering. The encouragement of poetry itself is a labor and a privilege like that of living. It requires, I imagine, among other startlingly simple things, a love of poetry, and possibly a recurring despair of finding it again, an indelible awareness of its parentage with that biblical waif, ill at ease in time, the spirit. No one has any claims on it, no one deserves it, no one knows where it goes. It is not pain, and it is not the subconscious, though it can hail from either as though it were at home there. On the other hand, thinking of the activists I remember the bee gorging honey (for the circumstances, as it realized, contained a menace of some kind) though its abdomen had been amputated. For some minutes it continued to devour nourishment, since its motor system was rightly informed that this was lacking. As closely as could be observed it was so far from feeling pain that it had no conception of its loss. All that it ate poured through the wound and was gone, and it died of starvation. I am haunted by its other death, before or after, in a useless gland of the lost abdomen. The fact that one is haunted by it does not mean that it stayed alive.

But then, among my peculiar failings is an inability to believe that the experience of being human, that gave rise to the arts in the first place, can continue to be nourished in a world contrived and populated by nothing but humans. No doubt such a situation is biologically impossible, but it is economically desirable, and we exist in an era, dedicated to the myth that the biology of the planet, as well as anything else that may be, can be forced to adapt infinitely to the appetites of one species, organized and deified under the name of economics. It would be impossible not to be familiar with the contention that experience is merely a factor of circumstances, any circumstances, and can be equally valuable whatever they are. The argument is often presented as an excuse or consolation for activities undertaken or omitted for other reasons. The tendency of the arts', in a landscape fabricated entirely of human contraptions, to seek nourishment in accident and decay-the very places where the complex and unpredictable natural world continually reinvades the machine-may indeed be no more than an atavistic nostalgia for something no longer necessary. But it may be that the arts themselves are atavistic, or man, for that matter, as he has been defined until now, with the nonhuman world entering always into the definition. One of the vexed points of modern biology is precisely the definition of a species, and the point at which adaptation to changed circumstances requires a new definition for a species that has been transformed into something essentially new. I cannot escape the notion that it is because circumstances do have an effect on experience that they are not all equally valuable, and that many of the circumstances common to contemporary existence are contributing to a general destruction of what the arts until now have helped to dignify in what they called human. For one thing, the arts and their source were fed from the senses, and the circumstances that have been conceived and are being developed in the name of economics are relegating these anarchistic voices to the beefs abdomen. Indeed they must do so, for the senses, if they were not uniformed, duped, and cowed, would constitute a continuous judgment of the world they touched on, and not only of its means but of its ends. Instead of the world of the senses, which was unprovable but you never knew what it might say, the creature that is replacing the Old Adam has substituted comfort and erotic daydreams (whether or not physically enacted) and tells you that they are not only more convenient and more fun, but cleaner.

Along with the insistence that all circumstances are equally valuable, there sometimes goes an odd and guilty assertion (and all injunctions that do not proceed from the biblical waif ventriloquize for the institution) that the artist must go along with the life of his time, as though he could do anything else. In many instances no doubt this somewhat priggish platitude bespeaks little more than a frustrated longing to escape from the salient characteristics of that life the moment occasion or courage offers. Sometimes it appears to betray, chiefly, a sense of being outside it, or just outside. But what is interesting about it is the assumption that man, the animal and artist, and the arts that have conceived him until now, are infinitely adaptable to man-made circumstances; and "adaptable," as the most unavoidable acquaintance with economics will reveal, means "simplifiable," when so used.

Going along with the life of his time in an earnest fashion may or may not benefit the attempt to give utterance to the unutterable experience of being alive, and consciously mortal, and human, in any time. It does not necessarily entail going along with all possible activities of an emergent and epidemic species which scorns all life except its own withering existence, and is busily relegating the senses its predecessors were given to apprehend their world, and the creatures with which they were privileged to share it.

Here and there a form of art has become recognizable as a feature of the era. Stemming from a more or less deliberate and exclusive immersion in the metropolitan life of our time, it resorts perforce to increasingly extreme states of consciousness as though they were the desperate retreats of truth, yet its images are frequently at a remove from any direct and integrated sensual criteria. When it provokes recognition of anything it is usually of the squalid landscapes of a world made and polluted by man alone, from which it shows that there is no escape. It is not an art which I wish to decry nor to avoid, but I would hope not to be limited by it nor identified with it, any more than I would want to do my dying in the bee's anterior part.

I However that may be, absolute despair has no art, and I imagine the writing of a poem, in whatever mode, still betrays the existence of hope, which is why poetry is more and more chary of the conscious mind, in our age. And what the poem manages to find hope for may be part of what it keeps trying to say.

From Regions of Memory: Uncollected Prose, 1949-1982. Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsom. Copyright 1987 by W.S. Merwin.


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