I think about honesty today, about greed. Answers seem always to be found in Art, "the chalice into which we pour the wine of transcendence," as Stanley Kunitz puts it.
The writer today, said Albert Camus in his acceptance of the Nobel Prize, “cannot serve those who make history; he must serve those who are subject to it.”
How true! And yet one finds to one’s dismay that the poetic imagination resists being made the tool of causes, even the noblest of causes. The imagination lives by its contradictions and disdains any form of oppression, including the oppression of the mind by a single idea.
Poetry, I have insisted, is ultimately mythology, the telling of the stories of the soul. This would seem to be an introverted, even solipsistic enterprise, if it were not that these stories recount the soul’s passage through the valley of this life – that is to say, its adventure in time, in history.
If we want to know what it felt like to be alive at any given moment in the long odyssey of the race, it is to poetry we must turn. The moment is dear to us, precisely because it is so fugitive, and it is somewhat of a paradox that poets should spend a lifetime hunting for the magic that will make the moment stay. Art is that chalice into which we pour the wine of transcendence. What is imagination but a reflection of our yearning to belong to eternity as well as to time?
In an age defined by its modes of production, where everybody tends to be a specialist of sorts, the artist ideally is that rarity, a whole person making a whole thing. Poetry, it cannot be denied, requires a mastery of craft, but it is more than a playground for technicians. The craft that I admire most manifests itself not as an aggregate of linguistic or prosodic skills, but as a form of spiritual testimony, the sign of the inviolable self consolidated against the enemies within and without that would corrupt or destroy human pride and dignity. It disturbs me that twentieth century American poets seem largely reconciled to being relegated to the classroom – practically the only habitat in which most of us are conditioned to feel secure. It would be healthier if we could locate ourselves in the thick of life, at every intersection where values and meanings cross, caught in the dangerous traffic between self and universe.
Poets are always ready to talk about the difficulties of their art. I want to say something about its rewards and joys. The poem comes in the form of a blessing – “like rapture breaking on the mind,” as I tried to phrase it in my youth. Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Does one live, therefore, for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.