Tuesday, May 26, 2020

'Brands Us As a Sailor'

From 1989 to 1992, Clive Wilmer conducted a series of interviews with fellow poets for BBC Radio 3, and the transcripts were published as Poets Talking (Carcanet, 1994). In his talk with C.H. Sisson (1914-2003), Wilmer notes that one of Sisson’s poems, “Taxila” (God Bless Karl Marx!, 1987) ends with the line “Only the past is true.” He asks, “Could we begin by looking at your poetry in the light of that discovery?” and Sisson answers:

“Well, the future is imaginary, the present is happening and that only leaves the past to be true; and it leaves the past as, in a sense, all of a piece. Once a thing is done, it belongs to the past. When you write a poem, you write it in the context of the great poets of the past, not of whatever happens to be reviewed at the moment.”

The cynic will say: “Your time is over, old man. All you have is the past. Your future will never arrive.” To which Sisson might reply, as he does in one of his late poems, “In the Silence”: “In every spoken word, / Always, the past is heard.” For the young, the omnipresence of the past is tyrannous and must be denied. The idea that we are born with generations of precedents behind us is intolerable. Our uniqueness burns like white phosphorus. Sisson looks at not just poetry but the world and his life sub specie aeternitatis, as did Spinoza. Michael Oakeshott writes in Notebooks, 1922-86 (Imprint Academic, 2014), in a section dated 1928-29:

“Striving to get away from our past – an impossible task, yet ‘life’ is nothing but this. The past – like a tattoo mark – which is ineradicable & brands us as a sailor whatever walk of life we may follow. Our effort to escape is like a fine spray of water, directed at a mark which, no sooner does it start on its way, than the wind dissipates it, & all is lost.”

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