By Luckless Blood
By R. P. Blackmur (1904 – 1965)
Soft to the river falls the millet field
moulding and giving to the wind, as might
an ordinary woman slowly yield
by moonlight her own summer to the night.
Alas, this tardy love that comes elate,
irradiant sun-flash on cresting seas,
invades and wastes, as if by chosen spate
not luckless blood, my quiet granaries.
I am at loss, all manners and no man,
all aching breath, all queasy near the heart,
the fond brain, vacillating plan to plan.
All’s torment here, dull hope and under-smart –
unless, O sweeping harvest, sleeping flood,
the old love grow in me and find me good.
In my favorite used book store, Midway Books in St. Paul, the poetry section is located on the second floor. This is the kind of book store where they still don’t have a cash register. You take your precious finds to the front counter and the cashier writes down the cost of each book on a lined pad of paper, totals it up by hand or with a small calculator, only to start all over and head back to the lined note pad to add the tax. The place is enormous, with most of its stock hidden away in an adjoining building where the public is not allowed. Supposedly, this is where the most valuable and rare books are kept, only available through the research department, (which consists of a small desk wedged beneath the stairs going to the second floor), or on-line, but I have always suspected is simply the owners own personal book collection that he can’t bear to sell.
Midway Books poetry section is generous in both size and breadth of the authors represented. I have rarely taken an interest in a poet, wandered in and not found at least one volume of his or hers poetry to my liking. Across from that actual poetry section is an equally large section, with the ominous title; “Literary Criticism.” These are the books that will be there until the place collapses under its own weight. I must admit, I have never once purchased a single book that could be called literary criticism and I don’t give a fig what anyone ever had to say on the subject.
Such is the fate of “great” literary critics, R. P. Blackmur and Alan Tate often reported as two of the finest during their lifetimes. Does anyone really care what critics have to say, beyond the obligatory interest of academics and English literature professors of their day? My answer is no. There are too many good books and good poets to read, with a stack of books by my bed at any given time as proof, to ever even consider passing those by and reading criticism instead. I understand that the reputation of many of the great poets of the 20th century were made in part because of their contributions to literary criticism as well. But how long does criticism stay relevant or even have a purpose? The answer is, about as long as a donnut stays fresh.
I am not one who believes that poetry is dead, I think it thrives today as much as it has at anytime in history. However, the audience for most poets is watered down. Gone are the days of living rock star poets, when a poet could rise in stature to speak for an entire country or a generation. Today the sheer volume of new work, much of it shockingly good, creates a thinner veneer of support for new writers, except for the one or two names that are bankable and are on every skinny shelf of poetry in new book stores, giving the impression that poetry is in a tail spin careening towards its final doom. Some wit said, “There is nothing more unsaleable than a new poet’s first book.” And so the path to getting a second or third published, requires a poet not only to continue writing poetry, but to also write about other people’s writing. Many poets seem compelled to contribute to the broader conversation about poetry, maybe in part to wave a brightly colored flag to say look over here, read this person too. If that’s the case, and literary criticism is intended to somehow illuminate our path to find new voices, then maybe it has a purpose. The problem is, I don’t want someone else telling me what’s “good” and what’s “bad”. In the end, the only thing that matters to me, is the poetry.
Randall Jarrell said, “The poet writes his poem for its own sake, for the sake of that order of things in which the poem takes the place that has awaited it.” All poetry is an artifact of being human, it contains a living breath that connects us to an artistic web that reminds us that we aren’t alone. Poetry and art in general are lifelines being thrown to us everywhere. We just have to reach out and grab onto one.