The Permanence of Poetry

John sitting in a wooden chair

They may be the oldest books in your library, having come down from your mother or father or a favorite aunt. They are different from the Stephen King paperbacks, the Danielle Steel romances, the flotsam and jetsam of books from past elections. Bound in limp leather and printed on the best paper, they may be inscribed for a graduation or wedding. If, in the age of Kindle, the shelves in your library come to be empty save for a single, plastic e-book, then the books I’m talking about will be the most likely to remain in their place of honor on your shelves.

Why is it, when we want to make a gift in fellowship, love or celebration, that the single gift we choose to make is so often a book of poetry? I think it’s because poetry’s great pursuit is permanence. The work of the poet is to make poems that will last forever, in a world where nothing lasts forever. And this the poet does by making a poem that is perfect within its own four corners. The occasion of the poem, its actual subject, may be the slightest thing.

Whenas in silks my Julia goes
Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes.

Next, when I cast mine eyes and see
That brave vibration each way free;
Oh how that glittering taketh me.

We still read these lines, 350 years after they were published, because Robert Herrick captured a moment, like a fly in amber, with the arresting perfection of which art is capable.

But there is a further reason, beyond its accomplishment as art, that poetry can be imperishable. Poetry deals in human emotion and human wisdom. This kind of knowledge doesn’t change or become outmoded with time, because human nature is a constant throughout the history of our kind. Not so with scientific knowledge. Ptolemy was supplanted by Copernicus; Newton by Einstein. But the love that shook Shakespeare in the sonnets is the same love we feel today. Ditto for the anger of Achilles or the knowledge of death in Emily Dickinson. Once said, and said with the perfection of their art, the great poets speak for all of us who follow.

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