In my generation, most of the poets I admire are interested in length. By which I mean that they want to write long lines. long stanzas, long poems, poems which cover an extended sequence of events. To all this I feel an instant objection, whose sources I’m not confident I know. Some of the sources may lie in character, in my tendency to reject all ideas I didn’t think of first, which habit creates a highly charged adversarial relationship with the new. What is positive in this process is that it creates an obligation to articulate an argument.
What I share with my friends is ambition; what I dispute is its definition. I do not think that more information always makes a richer poem. I am attracted to ellipsis, to the unsaid, to suggestion, to eloquent, deliberate silence. The unsaid, for me, exerts great power: often I wish an entire poem could be made in this vocabulary. It is analogous to the unseen; for example, to the power of ruins, to works of art either damaged or incomplete. Such works inevitably allude to larger contexts; they haunt because they are not whole, though wholeness is implied: another time, a world in which they were whole, or were to have been whole, is implied. There is no moment in which their first home is felt to be the museum. A few years ago, I saw a show of Holbein drawings; most astonishing were those still in progress. Parts were entirely finished. And parts were sketched, a fluent line indicating arm or hand or hair, but the forms were not filled in. Holbein had made notes to himself: this sleeve blue, hair, auburn. Though the terms were other–not the color in the world, but the color in paint or chalk.
What these unfinished drawings generated was a vivid sense of Holbein at work, at the sitting; to see them was to have a sense of being back in time, back in the middle of something. Certain works of art become artifacts. By works of art, I mean works in any medium. And certain works of art do not.
It seems to me that what is wanted, in art, is to harness the power of the unfinished. All earthly experience is partial. Not simply because it is subjective, but because that which we do not know, of the universe, of mortality, is so much more vast than that which we do know. What is unfinished or has been destroyed participates in these mysteries. The problem is to make a whole that does not forfeit this power.
The argument for completion, for thoroughness, for exhaustive detail, is that it makes an art more potent because more exact–a closer recreation of the real. But the cult of exhaustive detail, of data, needs scrutiny. News stories are detailed. But they don’t seem, at least to me, at all real. Their thoroughness is a reprimand to imagination. And yet they don’t say this is what it was to be here.
I belong, so it appears, to a generation suspicious of the lyric, of brevity, of the deception of stopped time. And impatient with beauty, which is felt to be an inducement to stupor. Certainly there is stupor everywhere; it is an obvious byproduct of anxiety. But narrative poetry, or poetry packed with information, is not the single escape from the perceived constrictions of the lyric. A number of quite different writers practice in various ways another method.