“There is something Chinese about Ausonius,” Helen Waddell writes of the late-late Roman poet (c. 310-c. 395 CE) in The Wandering Scholars, and then compares him to Po Chü-i. She quotes from one of Ausonius’s poems, “Fields of the Sorrowful Lovers”:
They wander in deep woods, in mournful light,
Amid long reeds and drowsy-headed poppies,
And lakes where no water laps, and voiceless streams,
Along whose banks in the dim light grow old
Flowers that were once bewailèd names of Kings.
I bring this up only to suggest that there is more to poetry and the history of poetry than the internecine conflicts we are treated to these days, in the shrinking pond that is American poetry in the age of climate change.
Specifically, we must let go of the notion that as poets we somehow write for the future, or worse, that we write for a readership in the same way that actors perform for an audience.
This has been on my mind because I’ve been reading Henri Bergson’s The Creative Mind: An Introduction to Metaphysics. Bergson argues that our common notion that the universe is pregnant with possibilities that somehow come to fruition in particular realities—in a rose, a fish, a poem, a person—is untrue. Instead, he writes,
The ancients […] imagined that Being was given once and for all, complete and perfect, in the immutable system of Ideas: the world which unfolds before our eyes could therefore add nothing to it; it was, on the contrary, only diminution or degradation; its successive states measured as it were the increasing or decreasing distance between what is, a shadow projected in time, and what ought to be, Idea set in eternity; they would outline the variations of a deficiency, the changing form of a void. It was Time which, according to them, spoiled everything. The moderns […] no longer treat Time as an intruder, a disturber of eternity; but they would very much like to reduce it to a simple appearance. The temporal is, then, only the confused form of the rational. What we perceive as being a succession of states is conceived by our intellect, once the fog has settled, as a system of relations. The real becomes once more the eternal, with this single difference, that it is the eternity of the Laws in which the phenomena are resolved instead of being the eternity of the Ideas which serve them as models. But in each case, we are dealing with theories. Let us stick to the facts. Time is immediately given. That is sufficient for us, and until its inexistence or perversity is proved to us we shall merely register that there is effectively a flow of unforeseeable novelty.
Bergson’s insistence on “unforeseeable novelty” leads him to view possibility as something created only in retrospect, a lineage projected backward into the past by each new act of creation. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians is impossible—until it happens: then we can look back and discern the many strands of possibility that led to the result. A new poem is published that shakes up the literary community, and critics, and devotees of this or that poetic tribe, and the editors of anthologies, all respond by discovering the lineage of that poem. In the realm of history as well as the realm of art, this process goes on and on; the more significant the act of creation, the more extensive the elaboration of the possibilities that produced it.
“How can we fail to see,” Bergson asks, “that if the event can always be explained afterwards by an arbitrary choice of antecedent events, a completely different event could have been equally well explained in the same circumstances by another choice of antecedent—nay, by the same antecedents otherwise cut out, otherwise distributed, otherwise perceived—in short, by our retrospective attention? Backwards over the course of time a constant remodeling of the past by the present, of the cause by the effect, is being carried out.” Regarding the act of artistic creation, this means that “the artist in executing his work is creating the possible as well as the real.”
This is a radical but inescapable notion. Instead of the truistic Western idea of freedom as “a choice between possibles,” Bergson confronts the fact that “we must resign ourselves to the inevitable: it is the real which makes itself possible, and not the possible which becomes real.” This process is the same process we see at work in nature: “ever-recurring novelty, the moving originality of things.”
What a liberating notion! Liberating because it confirms what all artists know, however strong or weak their talent: in the moment of creation they are completely free. There is no “anxiety of influence,” Harold Bloom be damned, because “influence” is created only in retrospect; it has nothing to do with the moment of creation. In fact, it may be that the only way to measure talent is by how freely an artist creates, how successfully he or she ignores the aesthetic pundits and liberates the particular work from what they’ve all agreed is possible.