Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Reflections: Why His Old Eyes Shine


I have written before about the poet, Donald Hall. I find myself currently reading a book of his that I picked up some time ago and have never gotten around to reading. This book, Their Ancient Glittering Eyes, is a revision of an earlier book – Remembering Poets – extended by the addition of “More Poets.”

I may have mentioned in earlier posts that I consider Donald Hall to be a better writer of prose than he is a poet. In my humble, though perhaps biased, opinion, Hall’s wife (and my high school classmate), Jane Kenyon, was a better poet. Given the excerpt that follows, clipped from Hall’s introduction to Their Ancient Glittering Eyes (“Introduction: Old Poets”), I believe that he gives me permission to execute such a ranking. That which applies to the poem must likewise be applicable to the poet. Here is Hall:

It goes without saying – or it ought to – that we love some poems and call them great. When I wrote Remembering Poets I felt unabashed in my admiration for great poems. I still do. In the early 1920s Robert Grave’s examiners at Oxford reproved him for thinking that some poems were better than others. For decades, Graves’s anecdote ridiculed dons who found quality irrelevant, or the assertion of quality presumptuous. Now, in academic America, some dons again find it unscrupulous or naïve or oppressive to claim that one poem is better than another. The idea of superiority comes into question. Surely superiority is an awkward idea, even oppressive; but so is death. “There is no order,” said Samuel Johnson, “without subordination.”

A few pages further on in the same introduction, Hall introduces the topic of intimations of mortality, insofar as these harbingers of finality affect the emotional comfort of poets, and others. You may find it laughable that I have regarded myself primarily as a poet throughout my adult life. Since I’ve had neither the kind of ambition of which Hall speaks below, nor any capacity for self-promotion, my bardic self-image has gone virtually undetected by the world-at-large. But I’ve had no other profession. Ergo, whether I merit such bittersweet agony, or not, I feel that which Hall presents below to the very marrow:

... All poets die without knowing what their work is worth; many fear not only that they have messed up their lives for nothing, but that they have harmed the lives of others.
Maybe no one ambitious, in any line of work, dies with conviction of accomplishment. Throughout their lives, dissatisfaction with work done drives ambitious people to try again. While they keep life and energy, the disparity between goal and achievement can be countered by plans for further work, but when death is imminent, or when old age drains ability and strength, depression over failure may become inexorable. Remember Leonardo’s melancholy question at the end of his life: “Tell me if anything ever was done.”

Okay. So I’m an elitist, suffering under the self-delusion that I’m a poet. So shoot me.

Addendum: Depending, I guess, on whether your orientation is one of introversion or extraversion, should you remove the dust jacket of my copy of Their Ancient Glittering Eyes, you would discover that either: the cover is attached upside down; or the pages are inverted top-to-bottom.