“Not a poet in America today could match Virgil. Few, if any, of us historians could write with the flair and judgment of a Tacitus. But how would we know that — or care — if we did not read?”
We wouldn’t, of course, and do not. Reading ought to humble us, not swell us with self-satisfaction. “Reading is not a means of self-affirmation, but of self-denial.” We, readers and writers alike, are neither novel nor unprecedented: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” Of course, we would have to read to know that thought, and to know it’s so. Seldom do the unread read themselves well, though having read much is no guarantee of self-knowledge.
“Regress — material, intellectual, and moral — can be as common as progress, if each new generation proves a poor custodian of the laws, behavior, knowledge, and learning inherited from those now gone.”
On the day I read Victor Davis Hanson’s sober elegy, Clive Wilmer’s New and Collected Poems (Carcanet, 2012) arrived in the mail. He titles a brief poem “To George Herbert”:
“Time and again I turn to you, to poems
In which you turn from vanity to God
Time and again, as I at the line’s turn
Turn through the blank space that modulates –
And so resolves – the something that you say.”
Wilmer’s placement of “the line’s turn” is witty and humble, as is “turn / Turn,” in which some of us hear another wayward allusion to Ecclesiastes. The word “conversation” has lately been debased, turned into a feel-good token, but Wilmer, like any good writer, carries on a conversation with the good writers who preceded him. “The something that you say”: All is vanity, not excluding pretensions to originality.
“Nothing that we experience has not happened before; the truly ignorant miss that, hypnotized by sophisticated technology into believing that human nature has been reinvented in their own image.”
Wilmer titles another recent poem “Shakespeare” (“In Memoriam: E.E.I.”):
“I must have been just eight – it was 1953 –
When in some parlour of my mind he pulled a chair out
Like a book from a packed shelf, then sat down and got going.
Fifty-eight years have passed and he hasn’t finished talking
Nor I listening. My father was already dead,
My mother’s now been dead for thirty years. Who else
Have I got to know like him, learnt more from, loved more freely?”