The Survival of Poetry

by
October 2002, no. 245

The Survival of Poetry

by
October 2002, no. 245

Some years ago I wrote a poem called ‘A Table of Coincidences’, which contained the lines: ‘the day Christopher Columbus discovered America / Was the day Piero della Francesca died.’ This is a verifiable fact, unless changes in the Western calendar have altered things. Clearly, I was being sententious and reactionary: the ancient good of the world and its new doubtfulness seemed to start on the one day. A hostile reviewer pointed out that every date in the world is the anniversary of some other date, and poured scorn on my notion by suggesting that a momentous event like the Armistice in 1918 might share a date with the invention of Coca-Cola. But we still honour anniversaries, and I am only too conscious of the 365 days that have passed since 11 September 2001.

Let me remind you, however, of a different anniversary. Fifty years earlier, on 11 September 1951, Igor Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress was given its première at Teatro La Fenice in Venice. The Twin Towers was a calamity: The Rake’s Progress, a celebration. The world is always ending and beginning. All writers, but especially poets, only comment on the world: they are seldom good at causing things to happen. This essay continues the sententiousness of the self-quotation I began with: from the Iliad to King Lear to Fredy Neptune and Mercian Hymns, poetry goes on being the world’s most unquenchable commentator. We may be tempted to say, rather sniffily, that it tends to be ‘the Questioner who sits so sly’, or we may puritanically rebuke it in the person of Thersites in Troilus and Cressida – ‘nothing but wars and lechery’ – but it does us the signal service of miniaturising our pain while intensifying our feelings. It has survived thousands of years of being ignored by the history-makers, who might discover, if they came back, that its ‘out-of-the-corner-of-the-mouth’ commentary is all they have to be remembered by.

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