Reading and writing are solitary pleasures, and yet both can offer a profound sense of connection. Writing these posts, I hear what I always do when I write, a version of my own voice, sometimes confident—as though I’m convinced by my own posture that someone wants to hear what I’m saying—sometimes trying too hard to sound confident, as though I’m fighting against the vulnerability of it all. After all these years of writing, I still haven’t learned how to write without aspiring to authority (pun intended, I guess), which is (he writes with apparent confidence) one of my biggest weaknesses.
I taught “Saint Judas” the other day, and the poem’s last line has been on my mind. “I held the man for nothing in my arms.” For nothing—for free, and for no reason, with no hope. Judas is redeemed—exchanged into meaning, into life—only when he doesn’t seek any compensation. We want our love to matter. We want to build monuments to our love*. But when we do so, even inspired by our love, we begin to misconstrue. Or, if not misconstrue, reveal. That we are human, that we want to be more than human, that in our moments of selflessness some self-interest lurks. Nothing grotesque, necessarily. Just a wish for this passion to be valuable, meaningful, true.
So it is when we love poems, and even more so when we love poetry, when we become, in some public way, people who read, write, love poems. We want to redeem our love. And so we do build monuments—National Poetry Month; “men die miserably every day.” And sometimes (I think) we misconstrue and reveal and we get territorial, and love looks less like love than a domain.
“Love should be put into action!” shouted Elizabeth Bishop’s hermit. And then the echo “tried and tried to confirm it,” the slightly funny feminine (can we come up with a better term for this?) rhyme mocking as gently as the echo itself. When I started writing poems, I was certain that what I was doing mattered. I could feel it. Now, as I grow less convinced that poetry matters in its own right and, maybe related, less convinced that my own writing has particular worth, I find I’m more drawn to usefulness—teaching, publishing, writing criticism. I think of the people who go into prisons and teach poems, who do indeed put their love into action, and powerfully so. And I think of the poets and critics who look for a political purpose in their art, sometimes plausibly, sometimes less so.
This is all a long way of saying something painfully obvious: when we write or read or teach poems, we’re still people. And if the poem serves as a cue for us to think and hear in a slightly different key, that’s only a translation. We still do the things people everywhere do—we delude ourselves, we get carried away, we answer to or resist the codes of behavior we’ve learned, we try to place ourselves in relationship to others.
I’m always amused by Larkin’s title: The Less Deceived. It’s a hilarious boast—superiority as humility, like Socrates bragging that he was the only person who knew how little he knew. But these are the kinds of calculations we make when we make or find meaning, conscious or unconscious balancings between grandeur and humility. We congratulate ourselves on having thrown off the fussy old costumes, unaware that we’re in a new costume now (I read somewhere that the wardrobe of the Hasidim began as a rejection of the outdated and overly formal religious clothing of the time.) It’s easy to get tired of it, and I do long to hold something “for nothing,” but of course that desire has already given it a purpose.
We live in the world, and sometimes we live so deeply inside it that we forget we’re there. I know plenty of people find that idea unappealing, want poetry to disenchant, and sometimes I want that, too. But it’s worth remembering that even there, we’re finding a kind of enchantment, a sense that we will, for instance, enact radical, societal change by writing poems most people won’t want to read. That’s no reason not to write them—many of them are wonderful (pun intended here, too, I guess)—but it is a good reason to be humble about it all.
I don’t mean to be bleak. The good news, too, is that we read and write as humans, even in our aspiration to be less fallibly human, even in the double calculation of trying to be the less deceived. It’s worth being a person, I think. There’s certainly plenty of company to be found there, and the odd mix of humility and aspiration it entails appeals to me. I no longer believe poems or poetry are essential. I haven’t believed that for a very long time. But I still sometimes experience them as though they are, and it’s nice to have people around who sometimes feel the same.
*Yesterday, after I had finished the first few paragraphs of this, a review copy of Susan Wheeler’s meme showed up in the mail. It contains the following lines from Propertius, translated by G.P. Goold: “As for the poems you composed in my honor,/burn them, I pray: cease to win praise through me.”
Jonathan Farmer is the Editor-in-Chief and Poetry Editor of At Length Magazine and the poetry critic for The Slate Book Review. He teaches at The Hawbridge School in Saxapahaw, NC, and lives with his wife, Caroline Luther, (and their cat, Hopkins, also pictured here) in Durham, NC.