Every generation needs its own poetry.
I continue to write because people publish what I write and just now and again they say it is good. I write also because I have thoughts in my head. Some people could call me a schizophrenic. It is all a very thin line but at least I have an outlet, and many don’t know they are poets or artists—that is the sad thing. – Marc Carver
In the last post I outlined the writer’s existential problem. In a world so full of information and great literature that it can never be consumed, why try to add to the already-infinite heap? What good can you possibly hope to contribute?
We can begin to flesh out an answer by adopting a more communal, rather than individualistic, view of meaning and significance in personal endeavors. We may not be able to match a towering work like Hamilton: An American Musical, The Lord of the Rings, or East of Eden, but we each can play a part in keeping an appetite for these works alive, preserving and whetting each new generation’s cultural tastebuds.
In an age of distraction and metrics, this appetite is in danger of dissipating. “Much has been said everywhere about the decline of religious belief; not so much notice has been taken of the decline of religious sensibility,” said T.S. Eliot. “The trouble of the modern age is not merely the inability to believe certain things about God and man which our forefathers believed, but the inability to feel towards God and man as they did. A belief in which you no longer believe is something which to some extent you can still understand; but when religious feeling disappears, the words in which men have struggled to express it become meaningless.”
More than half a century later, his words have proved prophetic. We are losing a certain way of thinking, a mode of being in the world that makes religious feeling possible. I like how Douglas Wilson unpacks what Eliot is getting at here. “The poet is preserving the atmosphere in which the words of the gospel can be spoken,” Wilson says in his book Writers to Read. “The true poet is keeping alive the possibility that words will still be able to do in the future what only the Word can do. But even the Word will be silent in a vacuum . . . How will they hear without a preacher, and how will he preach unless he is sent? Extend the same principle further. How will they hear if they haven’t learned how to listen to ordinary speech? How will they hear of heavenly things if they haven’t had their imaginations prepared by the poets?”
How will they hear indeed? We live in an infinitely fascinating world, rich with adventure and brimming with whispers of the transcendent. Who will open our eyes and soften our hearts to see it?
Enter the poet. Eliot says,
I think it is important that every people should have its own poetry, not simply for those who enjoy poetry — such people could always learn other languages and enjoy their poetry — but because it actually makes a difference to the society as a whole, and that means to people who do not enjoy poetry. I include even those who do not know the names of their own national poets.
I suggest this not as an answer to end all answers but as a starting point to encourage the aspiring writer. Read the brilliant dead guys, but don’t neglect the poets of your generation. Step up to the plate and be one. Preserve the preconditions for communication. Till the soil of our imaginations. Seek to keep the heavenly sensibilities alive.
I most likely won’t ever write something as profound, insightful, or edifying as Soren Kierkegaard, but I can write about what I’ve learned from Kierkegaard’s writings. If publishing that piece provides the gateway for someone else to encounter the great Danish thinker and to be shaped by his work, then it was a worthwhile endeavor. As Marc Carver said, it’s still a very thin line. It’s certainly possible that their life might have changed in a better way if they’d read a different article. But knowing that even a small semblance of fruit came from my work helps to blunt the angst.
Wielding influence is inescapable, after all. We’re inextricably bound to each other by relationships. Any time another person interacts with us, whether in person or through the written word, they are changed in some way.
Because here’s the thing, dear reader. For better or worse, you just read this piece. You took time out of your day – precious minutes for which many things were surely competing – and you chose to read something I wrote. The deed is done. You’ve sunk two-three minutes into my handiwork. I hope you’re a better person for it. If so, it’s my joy and honor to be a part of your life, and to participate in the greater effort to keep the poetry of this generation alive and well.
And maybe, just maybe, it means I didn’t sit down and write this in vain.
What do you think makes the art of writing worthwhile?