Notes: Time, Please

Poetry today is easier to write but harder to remember

—Stanley Kunitz

WHY DO SO MANY readers of new poetry feel that something is missing? One reason, I think, may be the dominance of the present tense. Others have pointed to the prevalence of the present in modern fiction also, but perhaps three quarters of all the new poetry that I read is cast in the present tense, indicative mood. Few poems show traces of the past emphatic (“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/ A stately pleasuredome decree. . . .”) or of the subjunctive mood (“Had we but world enough, and time,/ This coyness, Lady, were no crime.”) or of the present perfect (“I have done it again. One year in every ten/ I manage it. . . .”) or of the simple past (“Because I could not stop for Death/ He kindly stopped for me.”) or of the imperative mood (“At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow/ Your trumpets, Angells. . . . “) or the future tense (“Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s day?”).

Many casual readers of today’s poetry misunderstand their own discomfort and complain only of the absence of rhyme and meter. What really underlies their dissatisfaction, I think, is that so many contemporary poets lack conviction. They have lost some degree of belief in the validity of poetic utterance. Readers in the nineteenth century flocked to poetry. Was it because poets then were sure of what they were saying? “There was a time when meadow, grove and stream/ The earth, and every common sight,/ To me did seem/ Apparell’d in celestial light,/ The glory and the freshness of a dream.”The present tense, in contrast, constrains us to hear only the voice of the watcher. The present indicative lets a poet stand a foot away from commitment, three or four feet away from identification, six feet away from declaration: “September silence sags over the field./ Faded summer denims flap with fatigue/ on a neighbor’s clothesline.” Contemporary poetry tends to cast the poet in the role of witness. Between the poet and the event falls a shadow: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd:/ Petals on a wet, black bough.” Pound’s split figure implies externality, irony, remoteness, alienation, impotence. It omits relationship, intimacy, interaction, community, and the passage of time. Poems descended from it and composed in the present indicative encourage us to draw back lest we plunge in, like J. Alfred Prufrock. They enable us to avoid recommendation, passion, announcement. Speaking in the present tense says that everything is usual but nothing is special.

What of the poet’s timeless roles: scribe, historian, cantor, prophet, musician, elegiast? The work of many poets these days suggests that they cannot respond to an invitation to participate in what they find alien. Their poems seem unable to imagine the actuality of absent or future hearers, and sound like letters slipped anonymously beneath a door, lacking confidence or character. But let a poet move into one of the past or future tenses, and the reader may credit the writer’s belief that what happened happened, or that what will be will be.

“A poem may be worked over once it is in being,”Robert Frost wrote,

but may not be worried into being. Its most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it. Read it a hundred times: it will forever keep its freshness as a metal keeps its fragrance. It can never lose its sense of a meaning that once unfolded by surprise as it went.

Hear the beauty of those verb tenses ringing against the weight of the nouns. Hear, too, the time dimension exfoliating in that last sentence. In such utterances we hear what is gone, for the moment, from poetry. Poets must learn to believe again that time is their friend.

—Peter Davison