I am not stating this as a matter of pride, nor am I asking for plaudits. This is simply the way it goes for me. I need to mull things over. I need to listen closely. I need to let a poem sit. I feel that I owe it to the poet and the poem to give them time and extended attention.
For the same reason, I return again and again to the old chestnuts. I never tire of them. Hence, the past few weeks I have been spending time with two of my favorite anthologies: The New Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Helen Gardner, and The Oxford Book of English Verse, edited by Christopher Ricks. The current century is of no interest to me. I prefer to visit dear friends from long ago.
The Coming of Good Luck
So good luck came, and on my roof did light,
Like noiseless snow; or as the dew of night:
Not all at once, but gently, as the trees
Are, by the sun-beams, tickled by degrees.
Robert Herrick, in Christopher Ricks (editor), The Oxford Book of English Verse (Oxford University Press 1999).
David Macbeth Sutherland (1883-1973), "Drambuie, Wester Ross"
In browsing through the two anthologies, it was nice to be reminded how little poetry has to do with current events. Of course, there are exceptions: "The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna" (Charles Wolfe), "England in 1819" (Shelley, as self-regarding, disingenuous, and mendacious as ever), "The Convergence of the Twain" (Hardy), "The Wreck of the Deutschland" (Hopkins), for instance. But these are few and far between. The general themes are, as one would expect, Love, Death, the Game of Life, the Beauty of the World.
This makes perfect sense. Who wants poets to write about the passing happenstance of The News of the World? Think of all the wasted emotion and energy some people devote to cultivating, and propounding, what they perceive to be the "correct" political, economic, and social views about what is "wrong" with the World, and how it ought to be fixed. Think of all the utopian chimeras that these same people (left, right, and Martian) preoccupy themselves with on a daily basis. They will never be happy. For them, something will always be wrong with the World, something will always need to be fixed. And they (totalitarians at heart) have appointed themselves to be the fixers. Good luck with that.
I, on the other hand, believe that the World is perfect just as it is. Are human beings perfect? No. Am I perfect? Certainly not. But the misery we create for each other is never going to disappear as the result of somebody concocting a grand theory about How We Should Live. We are best advised to tend to our own soul, while being mindful, and careful, of the souls around us. This is the true subject matter of poetry.
Magna est Veritas
Here, in this little Bay,
Full of tumultuous life and great repose,
Where, twice a day,
The purposeless, glad ocean comes and goes,
Under high cliffs, and far from the huge town,
I sit me down.
For want of me the world's course will not fail;
When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;
The truth is great, and shall prevail,
When none cares whether it prevail or not.
Coventry Patmore, in Helen Gardner (editor), The New Oxford Book of English Verse (Oxford University Press 1972).
David Macbeth Sutherland, "The Breakwater, Stonehaven Harbour" (1950)
I am simple-minded. I need to be reminded of certain things over and over again. Although I do not believe that it is the function of poetry to set out to instruct or edify, I do believe that a good poem can embody human truth -- the truth of what it means to make one's way through the World as a unique soul, touching, and touched by, others.
I have seen flowers come in stony places
And kind things done by men with ugly faces,
And the gold cup won by the worst horse at the races,
So I trust, too.
John Masefield, in Christopher Ricks (editor), The Oxford Book of English Verse.
This is the sort of poem that I love to return to often. Eventually, its truth gets through my thick skull, at least temporarily. There are scores like this. Fortunately, the beauty of the poems is always there, regardless of my obtuseness. Thus, returning to them is an everlasting delight.
David Macbeth Sutherland, "Evening in Skye, Loch Carron, Highlands"
Gratitude in the midst of evanescence. This is poetry's ultimate message to us.
Vitae summa brevis spem nos vetat incohare longam
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate:
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
Ernest Dowson, in Helen Gardner (editor), The New Oxford Book of English Verse. The title of the poem comes from Horace's Odes, Book I, Ode 4, line 15, and may be translated as: "the short span of our life forbids us to indulge in a long-term hope." Ernest Dowson, Collected Poems (edited by R. K. R. Thornton) (University of Birmingham Press 2003), page 225.
Poetry shakes us by the shoulders, gently, and whispers in our ear: Pay attention. Live.
David Macbeth Sutherland, "Plockton from Duncraig" (1967)