Poetry – it’s a battlefield all right. This week’s announcement of the winners of the Forward prize, for the best collections of the year, threw a spotlight on to the world of contemporary poetry and poets. The theme of Thursday’s National Poetry Day was heroes and heroines, and we saluted the poet as hero and the heroine as poet.
Word warriors, they dedicate their lives to the cause, as they make their daring «raids on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating», as TS Eliot described it. No ministry exists to help them in their quest. It is a journey of the spirit. Even when they find a perfection of language to catch the moment – and always with eternity in their sights – they mostly view their hard-won triumph as another kind of failure.
For them, as Eliot explains, «there is only the trying / The rest is not our business». Why do they do it? Certainly not for money – the epithet «best-selling poet» brings a wry smile to their lips. Fame? Not quite. Immortality, however, has its profound attractions. John Milton wrote, modestly, to a school friend: «I am thinking of immortality.» And he got it.
«I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name,» wrote Sylvia Plath, only weeks before she died. «The woman is perfected» is the chilling first line in Edge in which she became «one of those… great classical heroines», according to poet Robert Lowell. Alas, the problem with immortality is that it is awarded posthumously.
Plath died virtually unknown, as did poor Keats, who believed that his name was «writ in water». Shelley, who drowned a short time later (a book of Keats in his back pocket), died with most of his work unpublished – «Then, what is life?» was the last line he ever wrote.
It’s a prophetic line, because it is in pursuit of the answer to that searing question that the poet lives and works. The heroism involved lies in the desire to penetrate «the sacred mystery of the universe» – which Thomas Carlyle believed was the essence of the poet’s journey to the interior.
They are sent to make it more impressively known to us, he said, and thus their work belongs to all time. Indeed they speak to us more powerfully through the centuries than do novelists or playwrights whose work is often more worldly and therefore more rooted in its particular moment.
While the poet may indeed speak to us today of today’s specific experience, what he or she will have mined is its eternal meaning. He digs for that with his pen. He does it alone. Art is a solitary man. «The intellect of man is forced to choose / Perfection of the life, or of the work, / And if it take the second must refuse / A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark» wrote Yeats, in his aptly titled work, The Choice.
During the past few months my fellow Forward prize judges and I have been struck by the pursuit of perfection that is to be found in the work of the best of our contemporary poets, in particular this year’s winners Don Paterson, Emma Jones and Robin Robertson. The mysterious gift and the impulse to create poetry which these men and women share may arise from a dark embryo within the poet which gradually takes on the shape and speech of a poem, as Eliot believed.
Alternatively, it’s possible that a poem «begins in delight and ends in wisdom – just like love» in Robert Frost’s more enchanting description. However, in the arduous life of the poet, often «the creation of art is a sacrifice of the man to the work, it is a kind of death». We owe them – each of them. It’s time to say thank you.
Josephine Hart, a writer born in Irleand.