Thursday, May 28, 2009

The test of poetry: another installment of "Of Being Quiet"

One minor good thing about the Walcott/Oxford circus is that the debate over "greatness" in poetry has ebbed away. Which means it's a good time to bring it up again. A simple thought: it's not "greatness" but durability which is, to borrow a phrase of Zukofsky's well worth reviving, the test of poetry. Here's an example of a poet whose work has quietly emerged from long silence:

"Several hundred years ago, a frustrated question was penned on the flyleaf of the large leather-bound unidentified volume, now known to be the work of the seventeenth-century poet Thomas Traherne. It read: 'Why is this soe long detaind in a dark Manuscript, that if printed would be a Light to the World and a Universal Blessing?' A light to the world, a universal blessing - these are bold, almost Christological, claims to make of an unnamed manuscript. How disheartened that anonymous reader might have been to know that this 'light to the world' manuscript was destined to remain in the dark for several centuries more. For Thomas Traherne is only now, at the turn of the twenty-first century, being rediscovered as a serious theologian, and the volume in question was not published until 2005. Being long detained in darkness seems an apt description for much of Traherne's work, most of which the author never lived to see published. After his death at the age of 37, his manuscripts, largely unnamed and sometimes untitled, lay for years in deep obscurity. The story of the discovery of Traherne's manuscripts reads like a novel with astonishing twists and surprises, moments of serendipity, hazard, happenstance, resolve. Volumes rescued from book barrows, from misattribution, from obscurity, from a burning rubbish heap, the flames batted out, the leather smouldering. He is a writer who, if luck were anything to go by, should have disappeared altogether. He so nearly did." -- Denise Inge, Happiness and Holiness: Thomas Traherne and His Writings

Forrest Gander had a fine essay on Traherne in Jacket not long ago that puts things in perspective; maybe because it didn't blather about so-called schools of poetry it didn't get the attention it deserves. Anyway, it concludes:

"Here, where Traherne demolishes time and his work pops out of its century just in time to be plucked from a burning heap of rubbish; here where we find it has something to offer to a 21st century philosophical dialogue; here in the clear mirror that he holds to the light of glory, it’s time to consider how Traherne’s presence, knotted into the lyric miracle of his writing, might be threaded to our own urgencies. Nor has Traherne stopped writing his way beyond us and into a future that, though it measures nothing, translates everything and so will no doubt find a place for him."


Lemon Hound said...

Greatness is discussed all too often it seems to me, and excuses much.

Yet the "great ones" are probably as yet undiscovered. Later, when we're all finished applauding each other we will stumble upon some poet who has been toiling away in pleasure, or perhaps in terrific sorrow, as we did with the Canadian poet John Thompson, and it will be immediately recognizable.

Probably she wasn't blogging.

Or perhaps she is blogging now, and again, busy finding her own way through the mire of her desire and the reading list she drags behind like several pianos...and the many arguments and discussions that tempt one away from their own work.

I do wonder at those who do not fit the hour. And I await them.

Thanks for the post, Don. Provocative as always.

Susan J. Barbour said...

Thanks for the great post. I'm a graduate student at Oxford and have posted a bit of the insider's scoop and my personal take on the ruckus on my blog, if anyone would like to take a look.

I am grateful that you agree this is an opportunity to talk about poetry (and not just politics).

All best,