1. Poets as Thinkers: A Collage from PascalFrom Things That Happen When Reading Rilke
I have my doubts about the metaphysical reliability of Reiner Maria Rilke’s thinking. It’s like Goethe’s science. I return to various things that Pascal said about the poets to consider why:
‘A poet and not an honest man. If lightning fell on low places, poets, and those who can only reason about things of that kind, would lack proof. People talk about poetical beauty. Why not mathematical beauty or even medical beauty? It would be reasonable to talk about a belle solution or beau surgery They are disciplines with a coherent basis, unlike poetry. In lieu of an apt epithet for it, we go all vague and ramble on about golden ages, wonders, fate. Fancy phrases. Most of what passes for poetry is little things said with big words…Imagine the muse personifying it. You’ll see a pretty girl adorned with tinsel and bangles, and smile at her, but go elsewhere to enjoy the charms of a real woman. If you are an ignorant fool, and know no better, you will fall for her ridiculous dress, and crown her Queen of the May. Every village has one…
‘Just by calling yourself a poet you are putting up a sign like a seamstress. ‘Skilled wordsmith’ might convince the illiterate. Those that know would see little distinction between self-appointed poets, and widows who take in washings. Those that have mastered their art or profession don’t need such vulgar display. They come into society as themselves, and talk of matters that are on other people’s minds. You don’t say ‘there goes a very clever poet or mathematician’. He keeps that to himself.
‘Peacock poets who indulge in poeticisms, even thrusting their verse on the company, are best avoided. You have to lie to shut them up. No self-respecting mathematician would ever recite numbers in your face or boggle you with a proof, and expect praise. But the poets in general are shameless, and want to be seen as someone exceptional (The Poet). Even Racine, who cultivates the mien of a clerk of court after an all-night sitting, has an ever-so-subtle sidelong glance to check that he’s been recognised. And if he isn’t, how he frets. Granted he’s a poet that stands up to moral scrutiny, but he makes his three hundred words go a long way by exaggerating them. No proper mathematician would do that with numbers. The educated man who makes art is content to be called just a gentleman. The generality is becoming, and he lets the work speaks for itself...
‘The assumption with poets is there goes a man who knows all that is to be known. Find me a poet who would deny that and he probably is Shakespeare. But the archetypical poet only knows one thing. It comes as a trinity, ‘I’m a poet, what I make is poetry, and that privileges me’. Better to know a little about everything than all about one thing. It gives you a perspective beyond your own. Of course if you can be both, so much the better. But choosing between them is how it is for lesser mortals than Homer or Socrates, and it’s best to elect to keep an open mind informed. If you don’t, you will be found out. The world eventually noses out a fraud and you won’t be taken seriously . Unfortunately lightning doesn’t fall on low places, and with the self-anointed, ‘recognised poets’ it may take the judgement of posterity to make it sink in.’
Thus spake Blaise Pascal, who said ‘if you wish people to think good of you, don’t speak’.
2. The PoetAfter Pushkin
Poet, so-called, let’s call it off.
Your much hyped feelings are a sham
being made to measure and to scan.
The public never have enough.
Once readers went for locks of hair.
Now signing books in Waterstones
they want your pants and not your poems,
breathless to breathe your poet’s air.
Your inner life’s worn inside out.
You’re hung like game until you’re high.
Your body in the sun rots dry.
Admiring vultures kiss your mouth.
Posterity’s the bottom line.
You’re forced to count bones at the feast.
But you’re no quick-change artiste.
Poetry must be given time.
Its secret is to play with fire
without being burnt on barbecues,
or swallowing whole the reviews.
You throw yourself on poetry’s pyre.
Wearing braces as well as belts,
you must pretend to act your age.
Before the passion on the page
you learn to abdicate yourself.