there is a poem by w.s. merwin titled 'berryman' -- after the late, tragic poet john berryman -- where the speaker asks berryman how does s/he know s/he is a good writer. the poem ends by stating what is fairly obvious, you don't know, you never know, if you want to be sure 'don't write'.
uncertainty and the sense of failure are the essence of creative life. we are always in a land of the unknown when we create. besides, i'm sure we have all had that experience of expressing our love for a poet/musician/filmmaker etc etc only to be told that they can not stand that artist. happens all the time. de gustibus non est disputandum.
still, the uncertainty of our creative lives can be maddening. life is pitched at varying attitudes. you know how much i adore the poet thom gunn. he is one of my heroes. there are only a handful of writers that i love their work in totality. i'm not claiming gunn is a perfect poet but his work, all of it, is important to me. and i believe his reputation, 12 years after his death of a drug overdose when he was in his early 70s, is strong.
such was not always the case. i have an anthology edited by edward lucie-smith titled british poetry since 1945 [penguin books; 1970] where the editor says this about my beloved gunn.
His best poems have a compact philosophical elegance: 'The Annihilation of Nothing' is both
influenced by, and worthy of, Rochester. Others seem strained and hollow, and the
proportion of really good poems has been falling, book by book. Gunn is enough of a judge
of his own work always to pick a really striking poem to lend its title to a whole collection,
and one must hope that he is also judge enough to find his way out of his present stylistic
i must remind you that when gunn moved to california his poems opened up to, what the british called, 'sex and sunshine' and vexed the hell out of the poetry establishment. also gunn's strict formal style loosened to include syllabics, and finally free verse. if these critics ever bothered gunn it does not show in his sterling, hard, beautiful poems.
if, and i don't mean at all to suggest that gunn didn't worry about his critics, i mean, he was human and wanted readers as much as any poet, he didn't let it seep into his work. gunn took merwin's advice to heart. he was a poet comfortable living in uncertainty.
i reread the above summation when i feel myself slip in to the black field of self-doubt. not because i rank myself equal to gunn. hardly. i have my own vision of poetry and poetics, and the life lived in poetry. sometimes i find my own secret sharers of the art don't share the same vision. that can be very dispiriting. i reread this poet/editor's text as a proof that one must listen to her own muse whatever its language. the phrase 'i don't know' is one of the most useful in our language. i have no idea if my poetics is what history needs, or even wants. clio will choose whatever she wants. the best i can do as a human being and poet is write and read at the first intensity, even if the definition of 'first intensity' is open to definition, and hope that a few might find it good, or good enough.