My son is a conservator. His job in Canberra is to make sure that documents, maps, photographs, anything recorded on paper in the National Archive, is kept in good condition and made presentable to researchers of the future. Old style ‘restorers’ who attempted to repaint or rebuild what they thought the original was, are seen as well-meaning but misguided falsifiers. His is a technical and highly skilled job, which he loves.
My daughter is a clinical geneticist. Well, she’s a pediatrician but well into her training as a geneticist. Her job, so far as I understand it, is to work with children who display problems that might have a genetic origin, conduct or order the necessary tests, arrive at a diagnosis and work with them, and especially with their parents, towards a suitable outcome. And monitor the future result.
My son’s work involves preserving the past; my daughter’s work is aimed at the future. Yet both work in the two time dimensions. My son preserves the past so that future researchers can access and learn from it. My daughter’s work involves searching the genetic history of her patients to discover how the past expresses itself (to use a verb from genetics) in the present.
Poetry is like that too. I think that any poet who is not well read on earlier poetry is laboring hard. Poets write in the present in the hope that their work will be read in the future. Unless, of course, they think a few thousand instant hits on the internet is enduring fame and a place in the annals of literature. And good luck to them, if instant and evanescent gratification are all they want.
But really good poetry doesn’t vanish, at least it hasn’t in the past. I rarely read poetry on screen (unlike fiction) because it can vanish all too fast. I need it conserved so that it can work its way into the DNA of my imagination. It can sit there, like the rest of my reading, until there is an appropriate moment for it to express itself. And here I’m using the word ‘express’ in both of its meanings: to press itself out and leave an imprint, as in wine press, the press, espresso. And the other, more familiar meaning: to articulate, to make itself heard in an intelligible way.
Reading enables that. It gives us access to the expression of those who came before us. It may be stupid, disgusting, admirable or inspiring. But everything we read has been created in the past. Whether we like it or not, the past is what has created us today, and if we want to know where we’re going, we have to listen to it.
Like today’s, the poets of the past wrote on that pivot of past and future, what they called the present, even if they weren’t always respectful of it. Their past is what made them, even if they thought they were amongst the most avant of the avant-garde. Looking back at them today, or at contemporary avatars, we should understand what it is to have a history. And that we are its future.
A few thousand hits on the internet might be what satisfies us, before somebody else’s great new poem takes over for a day or so. But is that all we really want? Good poetry doesn’t have to be preserved on paper, in books, though I think that will still be the standard as far ahead as I can see. Somehow poetry has to be permanently accessible if we can work out what we want to reread, and what can go into the trash folder or rubbish bin.
Plato, who banished poets from his Republic, said that knowledge should be printed on the soul, along with understanding. I couldn’t agree more. But how do we do it today, when so much else is demanding our attention, including the work of other poets?
All I can suggest is that poetry, no matter what medium it comes is, must invite us, entice us, even seduce us. Above all, it has to convince us that what it is saying, and how it is saying it, is of lasting value. Only then can what we express also imprint itself on our soul, or on the ongoing narrative of our culture, however we understand it.