I was recently reading John Burnside’s “The Music of Time: Poetry in the Twentieth Century.” It’s a good book, combining personal reminiscence and intensive reflection on works by poets as various as Siegfried Sassoon, Marina Tsvetaeva, Rainer Maria Rilke, Marianne Moore, Eugenio Montale, William Matthews and Haki R. Madhubuti, among many others.
Throughout, Burnside argues that 20th-century poetry matters because it continually interacts with contemporary social conditions and political crises, with what he calls — borrowing the phrase from Osip Mandelstam — “the noise of time.”
In effect, poetry “aims in every possible way to reaffirm the world that we actually inhabit, in all its vital, messy, beautiful, tragic reality. It is not so much the case that poetry makes nothing happen” — those last four words derive from W.H. Auden’s elegy for W.B. Yeats — “as that it attempts to reveal what is already happening, to offer a context to events and so propose a means by which the noise of time can be re-experienced as the music of what happens.”
Befitting an admirer of Randall Jarrell, that pitiless scourge of critical jargon, Burnside avoids technical terms, though his close readings demand close attention, probably more than many general readers will want to give. Still, he quotes well and regularly and imaginatively frames his arguments around the most poetic of philosophical catchphrases, including “All that is solid melts into air” (Marx and Engels), “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” (Wittgenstein) and “Nothingness haunts being” (Sartre). While Burnside mainly looks at work written in response to injustice, war and grief, his examples all tend to be comparatively sophisticated, as one would expect from a distinguished poet and a teacher at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.
Still, I would guess that most of us turn to far more sentimental verse when confronting adversity or seeking comfort. Kipling is much derided, but his oft-quoted poem “If” has inspired generations with its tribute to character and endurance, to the will to “watch the things you gave your life to broken” and then to build them up again “with wornout tools.” Or consider the gut punch of Sarah Cleghorn’s “The Golf Links Lie So Near the Mill”:
The golf-links lie so near the mill
That nearly every day
The laboring children can look out
And see the men at play.
John Greenleaf Whittier famously wrote what sounds like a bit of greeting-card verse: “Of all sad words of tongue or pen,/ The saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’”
But isn’t this true? The yearning for what can never be, or can never be again, haunts the poetry we respond to most strongly. T.S. Eliot, in a tacitly confessional moment, ends an essay on Thomas Heywood by quoting two lines from this 17th-century playwright that “no man or woman past their youth can read without a twinge of personal feeling”: “O God! O God! That it were possible/ To undo things done; to call back yesterday.”
Much of the poetry we love most is of this wistful, regret-filled kind, an all-too human hankering that things might be other than they are. A fragment of Archilochus sounds an ancient cri de coeur, “Ah, could I but touch Neoboule’s hand.” Few remember Elizabeth Akers Allen, but all adults recognize the longing she captures in just two lines: “Backward, turn backward, O time in your flight,/ Make me a child again just for tonight.” Wordsworth repeatedly mourns his lost childhood: “That time is past/And all its aching joys/ Are now no more,/And all its dizzy raptures.” The Coleridge of “Kubla Khan” dreams, alas in vain, of renewal, “Could I revive within me/ That symphony and song,” and Tennyson, recalling his youth, lingers over kisses “sweet as those by hopeless fancy feigned/ On lips that are for others.” It’s no accident that Poe could construct an entire poem around a single fateful word: “Nevermore!”
Among the moderns, Yeats, even in old age, feels the tug of hopeless desire: “How can I, that girl standing there,/ My attention fix/ On Roman or on Russian/ Or on Spanish politics?” And even Auden exclaims, “O plunge your hands in water,/ Plunge them in up to the wrist;/Stare, stare in the basin/ And wonder what you’ve missed.”
Though expressing existential angst, Auden’s words eerily resemble a cautionary directive from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Indeed, many elegiac poems now convey an unwelcome contemporary resonance. In “Missing Dates,” a haunting villanelle about helpless love and despair, William Empson writes: “Slowly the poison the whole blood stream fills./ The waste remains, the waste remains and kills.”
While loss, yearning, fear of death and an overwhelming sense of waste are part of the human condition, they can sometimes be faced more easily with the help of poetry. As Burnside writes, poetry “nourishes us, it contributes to our grieving and our healing processes, it gives focus to our loves and to our fears, allowing us to sing them, at the back of our minds, in a deliberate and disciplined transformation of noise into music, of grief into acceptance, of anger at pointless destruction into a determination to save at least something of what remains.”
For modern readers, the poetry I’ve been talking about finds its most quietly powerful iteration in Jane Kenyon’s “Otherwise.” In this poem, Kenyon — with a fatal cancer — reviews the simple pleasures of a typical day: getting out of bed and standing on two legs, eating breakfast, taking the dog for a walk, doing the work she loves. Throughout, she adds the tocsin-like phrase, “It might have been otherwise.” The poem slowly builds to a heart-rending finish in which the personal merges into the universal:
I slept in a bed
In a room with paintings
On the walls, and
Planned another day
Just like this day.
But one day, I know,
It will be otherwise.