A friend commented on a recent posting, where I praised the work of Byron and wrote about the pleasures I derive from his poems, including Don Juan - mentioning dual pleasures - and referred to the author Byron's jabs at Wordsworth and Coleridge while praising Pope at his (Byron's) own expense - my friend commented:
"Who's 'our' Pope, I wonder, to hold up our Wordsworths and Coleridges to? & who even are they?"
Context is I think an unsightly sort of word for when a friend speaks, but you will want to know that this friend writes and teaches - he has written clear, sensible, lovely poems, I know - and I believe he has fallen into a lifelong habit of both meaning and prompting, which is hard work to get into and all too easy to fall out of.
I return to myself, my thoughts as prompted.
My initial reaction is properly literal - who and who indeed? Names suggest themselves but there is no fit. Not for me. Our time (as my friend well knows - and let's say goodbye to him as all that follows is none of his fault) is not Byron's. The cultural/social/historical fabrics are not the same, they do not fit or overlap or compete as did the fabrics of 1820.
But Byron - as I stated and contend - completed Pope, as poets sometimes reach back, just a ways perhaps (sometimes only a week or so), and enliven or finish another poet's work, and to a purpose. Byron's work is a wonderful sort of testament to what was fine and rich and enduring in 18th Century English literature, which is a convenient way, and not the only one of course, to refer to what got published then, as written and edited by people now long dead. Byron's poems at their beat are clear and rich and sharp and not to be fucked with (or great, we used to say and still might, in a moment of personal weakness) - and, the individual mattered some: his (her, I will allow by long-fabled and dead proxy though Byron's opinions or personal history speaks to ulterior purposes) experience, drives, motives, & missions, self-sustaining or on behalf of what we might call an "ideal" - but ignore those quotes, please.
So I ask the literal, and can I answer it? - who is our Pope, or is there is an author whose work yet might sponsor, or does in fact sponsor work by someone who now completes that work? That is a proper sort of question, but I cannot answer it as I have only a very partial idea of what anyone besides myself has written or is doing, at all let alone in terms of poems written.
This is principally because I am not professional. I publish my own work and I blog, and I live moment by moment for this, what I do, but I neither live by my writing, or criticism, or teach, and so I am not compelled to render an opinion - which frankly I take to be a potential loss. Such pressures are perhaps a form to compel personal choice where otherwise no meaning would be rendered, no change occur. And I believe in form. And I believe that the teacher is who moves the world.
But, back to my argument.
I can pick out names. I could say for myself and for myself alone that Robert Lowell is my Pope, a personal figure, one whose work I believe I identify with with perfect intensity; and I might say - I might, I say, I might say R. Lowell had it right. Some other popular poet - let's pick Ashbery, Ponge, Cage, Bernstein, whomever - is confused and confusing, mimicking Byron's charge against Wordsworth.
This would be a purely lyric invention though, available only through a lyric consideration or belief in self, which I believe I have lost sight of, or at least so I tell myself I believe. Such a reading or conveyance would be compact, easily reproduced. And all wrong. I respect and love so many, so very different poems written by such diverse poets - professional and non (so very many different sects and individuals it is not practicable to render an accounting). I enjoy and respect and see the worth of almost anything you put in front of me, PROVIDED that it is well done, or effective in purport, which means very different things for different sorts of work.
Right there is my point, made a point, alluded to vaguely before in this essay. Our world is more complex, more various - it is more peopled - than Byron's was. Speaking personally, I don't know that I can even simply react anymore and render that reaction as a principal, not finally, not with finality; or, I don't trust any one act upon mere impulse or impression; rather, instead, I trust that I, that we act.
I am one amongst we, an I in we, and I say - we act on what we believe, on what we see and what we can make of it; we, (and therefore I) act - we, poets, writers, artists, people - individually and in community (perfectly or variously defined) - we, I, may react in effect, but we act in purpose and in fact, denoting the fact of the here and the now.
I believe strongly that as the world tends it will continue to tend. We will act with purpose. Our impulses and reactions will more and more be identified as a sort of ephemera, a hermeneutic appendage. Not useless at all, no, but a step in the chain of process.
We will soon, if not now, find ourselves in constant contact.