Poetic Lessons Learned From Across the Centuries

I had dabbled at writing poems since childhood, but when I finally allowed that poetry was an indelible part of my life, I was 12 years out of college, with all the responsibilities of an adult - family, career, credit rating. Going back to school was, practically speaking, impossible.

Instead, I set out on a program of self-learning, using the combined resources of public libraries, free lectures, and writing workshops. The poetry stacks of the library held special allure. There, I had at my service a wealth of mentors. Poetry is a single long thread extending back indefinitely; tug at any loose end and you're soon unraveling the whole fabric of the medium, meeting a procession of magnificent minds and singular spirits.

Imagine my delight, then, when I visited the New York Public Library's exhibit "The Hand of the Poet." There, through original manuscripts, notebooks, letters, photographs, drawings, and various artifacts, was the opportunity to meet and study under 50 great poets, from John Donne to W. B. Yeats, Walt Whitman to Wallace Stevens. It was autodidact heaven - information, instruction, and inspiration, free of charge.

The large room was arranged in rows of six glass cases and ringed along the perimeter with more displays. How to approach such a treasure? Deliberately, following the chronological path laid out by the curator? Or in full enthusiasm, racing like a 10-year-old into a pool of favorite authors?

I was able to do both. Three of the first four poets had long since claimed my devotion. John Donne was first among equals, and a handwritten copy of his holy sonnets, "The Westmoreland Manuscript," set the tone of studious scrutiny and giddy awe that stayed with me through the show. I was hooked. Nothing could have gotten me from that room.

Blake sang next: "Joy doth fan his wings & golden pleasures beam around my head," quoth he in one of his "poetical sketches," here written in his own goose-quilled hand. And close by, a letter from Robert Burns to a friend revealed the Scot's earthiness and affection in the swooping, hail-well-met brio of his rural handwriting.

Penmanship made for fanciful musings. The intense scratchings in Thoreau's journal (complete with pressed wildflowers) presented an impetuous, observant self-portrait. Robert Frost's writing was as weather-beaten as a New England sugarhouse. And Emily Dickinson wrote in a script so spare and mysterious, it looked at first like a private alphabet.

Such manuscripts conjured familiar actions - finding paper, dipping nib to ink, leaving a mark. The image quickly followed of the same artist's hand that produced the scrawl before us, penning, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," or " 'Hope' is the thing with feathers -/ That perches in the soul." In the poets' possessions - William Thackeray's gold-tipped pen, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's calfskin slippers, a leather locket belonging to Thomas Hardy containing a ringlet of his wife's red hair - one comes to the same juncture. Nothing celestial there, but earthly things, splendid and prized, advise us that art is an earthly pursuit made by humans for humanity.

Nothing, however, spoke as plainly of the human process of art as the writers' own notes and drafts. There the work could be seen, not sent from on high, but wrought in individuality, through stages of effort.

In a published volume of Shelley's poem "Queen Mab," the poet has filled the book's margins with his scribbled emendations. Young poets can regard their work too preciously and fear making it public because it lacks perfection. Others send their poems on their way and never reconsider them. Shelley committed neither sin. He treated his work not simply as product, but as process.

In the age-browned and brittle carbons of T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," the poem is created before our eyes. The corrections, deletions, and additions of the early drafts, in both the poet's writing and that of his mentor Ezra Pound, are instructional in their example of revision. There was always a diamond-bright poem there, but one wonders if Eliot or the world would have found it in the misfires and excesses of the early drafts.

To a degree, young writers seek themselves in the works of masters. Like Montaigne, I discover more by accident than by inquiry, and at the exhibit, let delight and wisdom find me.

Through Lewis Carroll, for example, sending a carte de visite, a photographic calling card, with the attached note: "My dear Birdie, I send you one carte and ten kisses. The carte you may keep as long as you like, but I hope you will give me one or two of the kisses back when next we meet."

Or William Carlos Williams, grumbling, in a letter, about abstract artists: "In fact they want to throw the ball before it's even in their hands. They wouldn't even make a good shortstop on the Jersey City team."

Or this from Emerson's famous poem "The Rhodora," which I read, in the philosopher's own elegant longhand, for the first time at the exhibit:

...if eyes were made for seeing,

Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:

Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!

I never thought to ask, I never knew:

But, in my simple ignorance, suppose

The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.

Who could help but admire such minds, so utterly engaged in living? Therein lies the last lesson of "The Hand of the Poet." Poetry is not an exercise in profound thought or pretty words. It is, as the evidence proves, a matter of intelligence, attentiveness, and effort toward life, a way of being in the world. These matters are the first course of study, and are forever ongoing.

* 'The Hand of the Poet: Original Manuscripts by 100 Masters,' Part I, is on display in the Berg Exhibition Room of the New York Public Library through April 27. Part II of the exhibit, focusing on the 20th century, will run from May 10 through Nov. 16, 1996.

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