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On Poetry

On Not Letting Go

October 6, 2011 | by

"Notebook on an Intended Dictionary." Bound manuscript written on wrappers from the 1855 edition of 'Leaves of Grass.' Courtesy The Library of Congress.

Probably no writer ever finishes a book without wishing he could keep it to himself. For one thing, a book is company, during the writing of it; it’s hard to accept its departure. For another, a book is never free of flaws, its author being human. Poets have long been able to console themselves for the loss and the exposure by revising and republishing. Thus Whitman expanded, aggrandized, and eventually bloated Leaves of Grass; thus Wordsworth enlarged upon and finally diluted The Prelude. Some writers of fiction, too, have indulged themselves. Henry James returned to his early prose to render it more ineffable. Raymond Carver restored some of the fullness that a charismatic editor had cut from his early stories. 

For several years after publishing my first book, American Sympathy, I kept a mental list of oversights that I meant to acknowledge and unnecessary mysteries that I meant to clear away, in case there was ever a paperback edition. When I gave up waiting, I scribbled my errata on the endpapers of Phyllis Cole’s book on Mary Moody Emerson, a source for a couple of my corrections; I haven’t checked on them lately, but I assume they’re still there. Recently I completed a new book, a very different one, about which I’ll only say here that I miss it, even though it’s not yet altogether out of my hands. Some of my mixed feelings came back to me with the proverbial alienated majesty the other day when I read Samuel Daniel’s poem “To the Reader.”

The poem first appeared as preface to a 1607 reprint of Daniel’s shorter works, some of which had first been published by him as much as fifteen years earlier. In “To the Reader,” Daniel admitted to having tinkered with the poems during the interval and compared himself to

... the curious builder who this year
Pulls down, and alters what he did the last
As if the thing in doing were more dear
Than being done, and nothing likes that’s past.

By curious Daniel means “painstaking” rather than the word’s modern meaning; nevertheless the imaginary builder is an odd duck. The end of building should be a house; the end of writing should be a book. The trouble is that a writer, as a writer, doesn’t really want for writing to have an end, even if he knows that his reluctance is at odds with, say, a financially successful career, not to mention the fulfillment of a work of art by its release into the minds of readers.

Daniel continues:

For that we ever make the latter day
The scholar of the former, ...

There’s melancholy in this explanation of Daniel’s. He isn’t talking only about revision. Even a writer who doesn’t revise his earlier works may be continually looking back to them, trying to repair their insufficiencies through new efforts whose links to the past may only be legible to the writer himself. It’s even possible that there’s something retrospective in the nature of writing itself. Probably every writer’s first piece of writing, if it were possible to excavate such a thing, would be found to look backward. Writing tries to fix the past—to hold it in place and sometimes in imagination to improve it.

... and we find
Something is still amiss that must delay
Our business, and leave work for us behind.
As if there were no sabbath of the mind.

Daniel’s irony is lovely and deeply misleading, because of course there is no sabbath of the mind. A mind torments its owner as long as he has one. Until death, it is never done with being the scholar of its former days, and Daniel’s simile implies a reversal of fact and fiction. It implies, as a corollary, that the idea of a pause from writing is fanciful. And you can forget about finishing. A writer only ever imagines that he has stopped writing a book long enough to let it go. A book, as a physical object, is no more than the symbol of a rest that a writer can never really enjoy.

Though Daniel may seem, in his implied longing after rest, to be willing at this point to let go, he’s still not ready to. “It is mine own,” he asserts. “I may / Do whatsoever therewithal I will.” He’ll let go when he’s dead. Continuing his earlier metaphor, he calls his poems “the building of my life” and says that they constitute the only estate that he’ll leave to his posterity. Again the note is melancholy. Daniel is glad of long life, he says, only because it allows him to keep his poems in good repair a little longer, and because it’s only at length that one becomes a writer at all, given the resistance of the world to understanding and the backward-glancing nature of writing:

... For man is a tree
That hath his fruit late ripe, and it is long
Before he come t’his taste ...

Only after experience and after reflection does a writer’s work become sapid; only then does he know what he likes. As someone who next year, if all goes well, will be publishing a novel for the first time at the age of forty-five, I feel rather sympathetic with the idea that a long enough life is one of the kinds of luck a writer needs to have.

The faults that Daniel sees in his rivals’ books make him painfully conscious of his own, but his self-doubt is offset by his awareness that the rest of the literary world is even worse at judging merit than he is. By the end of the poem, he is reconciling himself to the hazards of exposure by asking the reader for permission to take it all back, should any errors be detected: “I’ll disavow mine act,” he promises. “I will ask nothing ... / But only to have in mine own again.” Before he reaches this paradox of publishing while promising retraction, though, he comes to a philosophical sort of peace with his mistakes. It may be that no one would ever write if he didn’t first err, he suggests:

I know no work from man yet ever came
But had his mark, and by some error showed
That it was his, and yet what in the same
Was rare, and worthy, evermore allowed
Safe convoy for the rest: the good that’s sowed,
Though rarely, pays our cost, and whoso looks
T’have all things in perfection and in frame
In men’s inventions, never must read books.

Daniel’s idea of error brings to mind what Gerard Manley Hopkins once called “the sakes” of an artist. It’s like a maker’s mark; it shows a poem to have been the work of a particular man. In the moment of publication, a writer must accept that his writing can never be without errors. But he can also find a sort of comfort in them. He may lose his book to the world, but the errors in it will always remain his.

Caleb Crain is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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