I am in the middle of conducting an interview with a fine poet based in the Midwestern United States. I asked this poet about history, and to what extent individual poets need to both acknowledge its existence and to give an account of themselves as possible players within it. He responded that to privilege one’s self with historical significance is a delusion; that those who feel that they are, or may be, “writing for the ages”, are trapped in mind-forged manacles, have created a personal Golgotha in which to languish, suffer, and perish. I agree with this to an extent; it is pretentious to claim historical significance, in the miasmic wilderness that is Western poetry circa 2008, where aesthetic codes and approaches clash so bitterly, and with so much frequency. On the other hand, had Blake, Hopkins, Shelley, Keats, Baudelaire, Dickinson, Whitman, Spicer, Olson, Zukofsky or so many others claimed historical significance for themselves (when no substantial public response validated their work), they would have been correct. Didn’t Keats say, “I thank I shall be among the English Poets after my death”? In the end, it’s all a mind-forged manacle, because, as Professor Ramsey noted in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, the simplest stone we kick will outlive Shakespeare. Those of us with the luck to be of some enduring importance will still only survive a brief span, as tiny spasms of light and movement, in a universe that has endured for billions of years.
A billion years: who could fathom such a thing? It may ultimately wiser to adopt the Walter Pater-ian stance; that we need to surely and securely grasp the most delectable moments of our lives, and purely for the sake of those moments. I think of the poetry moments that have meant the most to me: of the first supportive e-mail I received from a well-known poet, when I was 22; of the month that followed, in which I wrote my first decent poems; of my first major publication in a print journal, when I was 24; of working with Anne Waldman in my MFA program; of having my first article in Jacket; and, lest I forget, of discovering a handful of UK poets who have revolutionized the way I see, approach, and compose poetry. All of these moments had one essential thing in common: each one took me out of a structured, defined past and an uncertain present and delivered me into a future of promise, possibility, and a sense of the boundless. They, in effect, killed off my personal history, as it had accrued to my mind, body, and heart, and made me alive to the perpetual new-ness, freshness, present-ness of life. I believe it is this process, of delivering the future, and a future bright with promise, that is the essential endeavor of good art. Moments change; it may be canny, as Pater noted, to savor these moments as ends-in-themselves. Perhaps the moment of promise IS the promise, the moment of future possibility IS the future possibility, and so forth. Perhaps questions of historicity can be deferred for as long as history (our history, at least) lasts. Perhaps it is our job simply to keep creating moments to live for.
How many of us are capable of conveying this past-destroying energy, this live-wire dynamism, in the context of a poetry performance? This I cannot say. I have seen it done before, but not too many times. A reading I did in Brooklyn this March had that quality. It wasn’t even particularly well-attended, but every poet that read was breathing and delivering life and death. Certainly I have felt the same thing in Chicago, and occasionally in Philadelphia. It is said the devil is in the details, but it must also be said that angels dwell in details as well; the most enjoyable readings have wine, other liquor, involved, and a bit of sex (why not be honest?), and a bit danger. Readings, in short, that show us that there is something at stake in the things we create. We are not merely adding decoration to an already overly-festooned world; we are creating the fabric of ourselves, so that self-presentation becomes a means of both self-preservation and self-perpetuation. With every new book, new series, we are casting off a skin (molting) and growing a new one, and when we read we can, must, have to expose our skin. If we fall flat on our faces, we get up and move on. If we hit the mark, a few people will have made the journey with us, will have been given a moment to remember, will have added a chapter (brief or lengthy) to their history, which is also ours. This joining of selves is spiritual intercourse, which can be as thrilling, sometimes more thrilling, than physical intercourse. It is in these moments that history ceases to exist, that we grab the brass ring of the timeless and do flips on it. So I have to conclude that my Midwestern friend is correct; history, when it is dragged through the mud of egotism, is a Golgotha. When it is shared and created together, it is, or can be, the intersection of time and the timeless.