What's Poetry?

LEONARD BACON, friend and contributor, died on January l. He graduated from Yale with his ambition,as he once said, ”crystal clear. I knew I wanted to write poetry and nothing but poetry.”Thirty years later, after he had published several volumes and after his Sunderland Capture had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize. he was still of the same mind. “Poetry,” he said, “continues to be my blessing and my curse.”Readers will miss his exuberance. his staheart defense of the classics, his generosity, and his wit.

WHAT’S poetry? Intolerable question,
Sour in the mouth and bitter in digestion!
We say it’s thus and thus, or so and so,
Easy to recognize, and hard to know
In its essentials, harder yet to write —
The light of setting suns, chaotic night,
Strange radiation, streaming from otherwhere,
The world’s delight, the nympholept’s despair;
Now passionate in a brothel or a bar,
And now clear substance of the morning star.
What’s the affinity that serves to bind
Wild elements discordant in their kind?
It must be true, yet it is hard to show
That Milton is blood-brother to Rimbaud,
That Dryden has declared what Poe affirms,
Hopkins meets Baudelaire on equal terms,
That Pope in amity with Whitman treats,
And T. S. Eliot has his bond with Keats.
Modernity o’erwhelms us, but it’s plain
Elizabethan blood ran in Hart Crane.
And the relation is not too obscure
That links some lyric Greek with Marianne Moore.
You say it’s this, and suddenly it’s that,
And no one knows precisely where he’s at
And vainly rubs his much bewildered cranium,
Balked by wild paradox in that Uranium,
Which, as the wise not without ground aver,
May lose electrons and grow heavier.
Who can be definite on what is what.
Or what its essence is, or what it’s not?
Of what it’s not it’s easiest to speak.
It cannot be the program of a clique.
It cannot be mere egotism flaming.
It’s clearly not the couplets I’m declaiming.
It is not theirs who drain an empty cup,
And spurn time past to write time present up.
Poetry’s not dependent on the past
Or on the present, if it is to last.
A man upon this point may take his oath:
The real thing’s a synthesis of both,
Based on the past, if it be solid ground,
And upon new discovery, if sound.
But the old proverb should be understood:
All innovation’s bad — unless it’s good,
Though some are plagued by thoughts unclear and sad
That if a thing is new, it can’t be bad.
It’s a position that’s not hard to hold:
Some new things are as silly as some old.
On such a theme it’s ill to preach or teach.
Better distill the ichor out of each.
It’s my opinion we should all take heart,
For we are in the April of our Art
In this Republic. Iron’s in the thew
And the New World doth like a snake renew
Its winter weeds outworn. In dangerous air
Sweet odors blow. Color is everywhere.
The magic casements give on perilous seas.
There are wild thoughts and wilder images.
It’s true that in the enigmatic sky
A goose or two is honking pretty high.
But surely we should bid them go in peace.
There never was an April without geese.
And this should be remembered furthermore,
That some of them may get to Labrador.
Dear God! What splendid time, for all the grief.
Agony destined not to know relief.
The ghastly powers, the hateful principalities,
Planned chaos, intellectual bestialities.
Cool, brutal, scientific extirpation.
Starvation, desperation, and damnation.
I say, despite the pageantry of death,
The spacious times of Great Elizabeth,
For all their nameless radioactive glow,
Were cramped and small beside the times we know.
And lovely voices sing! Have we not heard
De la Mare piping “like a hidden bird,”
Renewing music never to be lost ?br/ Or Doric rectitude of Robert Frost,
To great simplicities for ever linked;
Lucid, direct, and memorably succinct?
Or him who watches the Pacific breakers,
Immense and rough, our King of Image Makers?
Oh, not in vain, the ancients thought and taught,
Unless we make the image we are naught,
Though it has been remarked, as I submit,
That there are several ways of making it,
Which on their separate levels of reality
May hit the white of just originality.
On tails of phoenixes few put the salt.
Unicorns are retiring to a fault.
And he who dares the wingèd horse to guide
Must have a natural bent for suicide.
If you don’t think the enterprise is stiff,
Well, just go out and catch your hippogriff!
I wish you luck in reason or in rhyme,
But I can promise you’ll work overtime.
The task is rough, laborious, and slow.
What’s poetry? Don’t ask me! I don’t know.
For what is Man to fathom or define
That ultimate, however crystalline?