|Photo of a gate, Arboretum, Asheville, NC|
And then I read an article from imprint about how many young writers no longer read or see a reason to do so, along with speculations as to why. I have my own ideas as to that, but I find them all rather depressing.
I was pondering how this is what it means to grow older in the postmodern landscape: to see things change until the world no longer seems your own any longer.
And then, just when I was feeling a bit despairing around the edges, I remembered Eliot saying that someone who dedicates his life to writing “may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.” And that’s quite a downer, no? I rooted about and then read a Paris Review interview where an older Eliot talked about that quote. The interviewer asks a question about it: “Seventeen years ago you said, ‘No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written. He may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.’ Do you feel the same now, at seventy?” And Eliot replies, ‘There may be honest poets who do feel sure. I don't.”
Well, right off I felt a great relief not to be an old T. S. Eliot or even a young T. S. Eliot and working in a bank and marrying terribly wrong. (Not that I did not make more than my fair share of errors when I was young—I was no doubt less wise that Thomas Stearns.) And then I wondered whether it is because I am not a man or not a much-lauded muckety-muck like Mr. Eliot that I feel so very differently from him.
I feel a lot more like Oliver Wendell Holmes’ chambered nautilus. I suppose Holmes (one of those interesting personages who had many roles in early American life) might even have had a nautilus on a mantlepiece somewhere, and so came to write the poem about it with that once often-recited line, “Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul.” It’s a pretty good metaphor, that nautilus. Years of writing poetry and novels and stories have added little nautilus chambers onto the soul of me, and I would not be what I am without them. Art is a soul-making activity for me and for many other people. My life and my self are larger than they would have been without them, like the life and self of the maker of marvels in Hawthorne’s “The Artist of the Beautiful.”
But the other thing that’s left out of a statement like Eliot’s is the whole business of culture. Eliot was a maker and driver of culture, a giver of gifts to his world. Even if we decided today that he was not so important after all—if poets stopped being influenced by him and everyone stopped reading him—he still would have been a major force in the culture of his time. He helped make his world in a big way. (I say that even though I think Modernism pointed into a blind alley and, in its after-effects, has weakened poetry in particular.)
So in the end I think that, yes, the world is rather messed up and people can be surprisingly loveless even though they are really part of one huge family. But no committed poet “messes up” his life and wastes his time by attempting the beautiful. What messes up and warps lives is the pinning of every hope on being recognized and crowned with laurel leaves. So few receive them, those leaves: like the Artist of the Beautiful, many an artist never finds his audience, and that is a great sadness. And so I say that while I like laurel leaves and am glad to have the encouragement they bring, a life in art should make one’s desires larger, not smaller.