A story like Robinson’s made me think about how close any poet is to falling into obscurity, of going unnoticed, unread. What if Robinson had not taught the President’s son? Would we have missed his poems entirely? Very likely so. We like to believe that success is a product of hard work, talent, diligence, or any number of other factors, and while these things matter deeply, they don’t always tell the full story. Sometimes, let’s be honest, something like luck, or grace—or downright nepotism—sets things in motion.
THE POET WHO NEVER ACHIEVED
No matter—dreaming still, he walked his room,
a steady pace, and seized upon some words
that knew their windblown strength,
like certain birds
that writhe in downdrafts but soar beyond their doom.
He read his betters, praised them when he could
and sought to make them better known, though few
could know this fact, not knowing him,
it best this way. The years stretched on, withstood
the poems he offered up; and when he died,
the movers boxed his things and never knew
that thirty years of poems fell into flame
and were consumed.
No matter—words abide.
Even the ones put down so brief renew
the world somehow—toward loss, toward lack of fame.
At the time I wrote “The Poet Who Never Achieved,” I had written only a handful of sonnets. My closest poet friend, Wil Mills, was constantly pestering me to write sonnets. Since many of Robinson’s best poems were sonnets, and partly to answer Wil’s challenge, I decided to attempt the form once again. I felt, though, that I needed to hide the form or not to make it too obvious—a rather inept and childish way to trick myself into following what I thought of as constricting rules. Of course, those same constricting rules, for Robinson at least, brought small gems of perfection into the world like “Reuben Bright,” “Calvary,” and others.
I didn’t have a specific poet in mind. At first, I was just imagining Robinson remaining unknown his whole life. What if that had happened? Soon, though, the poet of the poem became any poet, a no one, much like poets all of us know whose writing lives have gone unnoticed and who, especially as teachers, have made other poets, not themselves, better known. Many celebrated and “better known” poets may have no idea how many others have helped to advance their “fame.” A servant-mindedness is their nature, a genuine humility before the patient unfolding of time and its revelations. As readers, we move along in an absence, an impoverishment, “not knowing” those poets whose words might have enlarged our conceptions of ourselves and the worlds we inhabit. How many poets have we missed?
Or perhaps such poets are content, even refreshed, by their anonymity? I’ve known such poets, I believe. For them, writing is abiding, is being, is breathing; and achieving otherwise seems not to matter in the least. Maybe their example “renew[s] the world” in a way we have yet to imagine? I was taught as a child to “be transformed by the renewing of [the] mind.” A poet who doesn’t “achieve” anything other than renewing his or her mind—well, maybe there is something to be said for teaching the self to move not toward renown or acceptance, not toward wanting posterity, but instead “toward loss, toward lack of fame,” which, in reality, within the fullness of time, will likely be the fate of most poets, even those most of us believe have achieved some level of success.
“No matter,” the poem says, “Words abide.” That’s my Baptist upbringing sneaking in, remembering being taught that God’s word does not return void. Maybe no one’s words simply disappear or lack influence, even a poet who doesn’t “achieve” in the ways in which we typically measure or define success. Perhaps by insisting upon being noticed, we limit our conceptions of the real value of writing, the moment by moment encounter with the wonderful mystery of existence, how utterly incomprehensible it is that we can speak a language and be understood.
Sometimes—maybe most of the time?—our only audience is ourselves, the day to day experience of writing this or that poem which, most likely, very few will ever read, much less be changed by. Maybe that outcome is okay, realistic, pragmatic, and worthy, not to mention mysterious, awe-inspiring, holy, and fulfilling. Writing a poem may only teach humility, and maybe that’s an achievement—even if singular to one poet even—that begins to “renew the world.”