The Poet as God and Failure
March 8, 2022
The Poet as God and Failure
There is always something special about occupying the same space as a poet, but I do not know if it is horror or amazement. While in Oxford, I never thought about the odd ways my life may have crossed with John Donne’s over 400 years ago. However, I still felt a connection to the poet when mentioning his alma mater regardless of how tenuous the connection might have been. After all, I had been there. Perhaps, we sat in the same section of the library or sat in the same pub just trying to get words on a page. Poetry, to me, is the same as this feeling. It is an attempt to occupy the same space at a different time and have a conversation with a person in the other side of the booth who is not there. It is a rhetoric of space, not time, as we navigate through parallel spaces rooted in time, but not constrained by it. While we occupy the same intellectual space of the poem, we are still two separate worlds crossing paths for a brief, evanescent moment to celebrate the act of world-building inherent in poetry. The writing and reading of a poem are in a sense a celebration of a world that may or may not be quite different than our own.
Although poetry often arouses controversy, John Donne remains more controversial. Rarely does the citation of a person conjure such polarizing views. In Reprobates, John Stubbs notes how great English poet, Ben Jonson, felt that “Donne deserved hanging for the liberties he took with metre and would soon be forgotten anyway because he was too obscure.” In his own day, Donne was controversial not only in his abandonment of tradition values of English society, but also his abandonment of poetic and aesthetic values. Furthermore, Stubbs notes how Donne’s clandestine marriage to Anne More, promiscuous actions, and radical thinking in regards to the religious atmosphere of the time were common themes within his own poetry and almost heretical in early modern England. These earlier poems would fuel Donne’s religious anxiety later in life creating a rift between late sermons and early poetry. The enterprises of world-building and poetry-making were dangerous to the poet’s soul and continue to be dangerous today. Donne becomes a potential religious tragedy as the poet risks damnation in the eyes of himself, society, and ultimately God.
Mythic stories reveal the oldest poets as tragic failures. As Ben Lerner contends in The Hatred of Poetry, “the poet is a tragic figure. The poem is always a record of failure. There is an undecidable conflict between the poet’s desire to sing an alternative world and, as Grossman puts it, ‘resistance to alternative making inherent in the materials of which any world must be composed.’” The poet is regarded as a failure, because the act of world building out of words by nature is always a failure. While society loathes poets, poets loathe themselves for this failure. The Orpheus demonstrates this failure and the poet’s failure to construct a stable alternative world. In the myth, Orpheus’ lament through song allows the poet-singer to transcend natural law and enter the land of the dead while living. The song is an entry-point and descent into a different world to occupy the same space as Eurydice, his audience and beloved. The myth literalizes the poet’s goal of creating an alternative universe in which two worlds become one through the sharing of space.
However, the tragedy lies in the poet’s failure to create a stable world. As Orpheus ascends and the point of convergence of two worlds is on the horizon, the two worlds instead diverge as Orpheus looks back, resulting in the separation of Orpheus and Eurydice. Complex emotions such as anxiety, distrust, and lack of faith cause Orpheus to glance back; forever divide; forever dividing the two worlds. The emotions are the same for the poet when writing. While there is a hesitation on the poet’s part to fully commit to an alternative world, the reader also shares blame in the division. The process of reading is a temporary death in which the reader leaves their former life to metaphorically subsume the role of someone else. The stigma of the failure of the poet creates a tendency in which readers may not fully engage in the incomplete poetic world.
My father once asked me “Why poetry?” and the question still haunts me today. Why writing when you know that the world you are creating will eventually crumble under its own expectations? My father did not ask this out of spite, but confusion as if the explanation was a sunbeam that he was attempting to catch in a glass jar. When held up to the backdrop of sunlight, it appears you have an answer, but once you leave the backdrop, the answer disappears into thin air. Because poetry is a rhetoric of space, to work it into meaning is pointless since it is rooted in a space, state, and pinpoint area. To look upon it is to assign a personal, subjective meaning that can never be fully communicated in a fully adequate manner. Poetry’s failure, then, lies in its inability to establish an objective world imbued with recognizable meaning, but, to me and other poets, this is poetry’s greatest strength.
“The Good-Morrow” answers this question of why poetry and addresses the failure of writing poetry. In Donne’s “The Good Morrow,” Donne exemplifies the evanescence of the space shared by the poet and reader. The use of the aubade is not only a lament for the good-morrow which signals the end of emotional intimacy as the poet guides the reader through the world formed by the poet, but also serves as a celebration of this fleeting moment. While each line counts down until the destruction of the world, the lines celebrate each moment of the created world. The use of iambic pentameter creates a predictable flow of words that provides an underlying temporal structure. The syllables count down until the good-morrow comes, signifying Donne’s departure from Anne More and the reader’s departure from Donne.
The opening question represents the power of the shared space within Donne’s poem:
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did till we loved? were we not weaned until then?
The use of “thou” and “I” demonstrate the author’s othering of the audience. The reader or audience is not fully joined to the author in the shared space until Donne uses “we” in the second line. The opening line serves as an initiation into the poet’s alternative world, while the second line represents the poet’s incorporation into the world. While the first sentence represents the two separate sets of backgrounds, emotions, and perspectives, the second line represents the oneness that underlies the reader-poet relationship. The alternative world of the poet is one space that expresses two different sets of ideologies of the reader and poet.
While a poet can slow down time with the use of stressed syllables, commas, dashes, and semi-colons, Donne’s use of consistent iambic rhythm and consonance in “troth”, “thou”, “till”, and “then” and “what,” “we,” “were,” and “weaned” suggests that Donne attempts to create an acceleration of time which empathizes the fleeting moment. The condensed form of the poem and the fleeting nature of time create the need for every word within poetry to express something significant and meaningful. In “The Good-Morrow”, even the pronouns must hold significant meaning for a briefly stable world to be created. Whereas a novel can use words from margin to margin for hundreds of pages, poetry can only use a certain number of lines.
The second stanza acts as a meditation on the expansion of the “little room(s)” of stanzas into entire worlds. The stanza serves as a cartography as Donne uses visually oriented words such as “watch,” “sights,” and “sea-discoverers” creating a sense of visual discovery that arises out of the poem. The process of reading is to create a visual world out of verbal sounds. The use of “worlds on worlds” takes significance when reading the poem in terms of author and reader dynamics. To me, it symbolizes the poet’s journal which when closed is a cartography of worlds on worlds as the poems are stacked on top of each other. The journal serves as a map to the interworking of the poet’s mind expounding on physical places and spaces of the mind. I carry my own journal everywhere, not only because of convenience, but also the recognition that the pages are maps to certain aspects or parts of my life. The poet’s journal becomes a universe in which numerous worlds are clustered together. When opened, the journal serves as an Archimedean point in which the totality of a space can plainly be seen. However, this also refers to the reader’s own presence within the poem. The incorporation of the reader represents a particular set of experiences being transposed onto another set of experiences, while the poet attempts to communicate their point. In this regard, the reader and poet “possess one world” and “each hath one, and is one.” A poem becomes a discovery that the reader makes while exploring and incorporates into their own cartography and understanding of self.
The final stanza represents the most intimate moment in the poem: “My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears.” The line is a moment in which Donne and More look into each other’s eyes, but, in another aspect, the reader and author temporarily look into each other’s eyes. When these poems and worlds are shared, it is a brave moment of intimacy in which the author surrenders control to the reader. Thus, sharing the poem is frightening, because the reader in not only guided by the author, but also eventually becomes judge and potential world destroyer. While these poems may or may not be fiction, oftentimes most intimate parts of the poet are buried within these poems. The eyes are viewed as windows to the soul and the reading of a poet’s work represents a quick glance into the poet’s eye. However, as a selfish reader, I attempt to insert myself and my situation into the poems I read. In rare instances, it is as though the poet is writing my situation into reality. A poem can appear as anti-mimesis writing the reader’s world rather than being read in it. Textual analysis becomes self-analysis. In this regard, the poet becomes a seer going beyond their own boundaries into another perspective.
However, Donne’s poem ends with the tragic failure of the poet. In the second to last line, Donne reverts to the distinction between the poet “I” and the reader “thou.” As the poem comes to a close and a convergence is on the horizon, Donne cannot maintain the stability of the shared space. The reversion to the initial distinction demonstrates “The fatal problem with poetry: poems.” Words are not sustainable materials for world building. Once the words describing a moment or feeling are exhausted, the words can no longer generate or sustain the world. The poem is limited by the poet’s skill in recreating the world in their own image which is finite. The end of the poem often results in the failure, which is the tragedy of the poet. The poet longs for a sustained connection with the reader, but ultimately cannot provide the means to do so.
The reader is disappointed in the poet, but the poet is disappointed in themselves and their work. The shortcomings of poetry lead to increased feelings of isolation within the poet and oftentimes results in the distancing of poets from themselves. The worlds that create intimacy and community in a shared space can be renounced by poets. As Albert Camus notes, in his Nobel lecture to the University of Uppsala in 1957, the real struggle does not lie in the exterior pressures of the state or religion, but that “the problem is more complex, more serious too, as soon as it becomes apparent that the battle is waged within the artist himself. The hatred for art, of which our society provides such fine examples, is so effective today only because it is kept alive by artists themselves. The doubt felt by the artists who preceded us concerned their own talent. The doubt felt by artists of today concerns the necessity of their art, hence their very existence.” The examination of Donne’s life reveals the self-loathing so often seen in poets. As Donne became a priest, his focus changed from godlike creation in poetry to godly creation in sermons. Donne’s early poetry invoked the feeling that Donne was elevating himself to the same level of God as seen in the following lines from “The Sun Rising:”
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride
Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime.
The imperatives “Go tell,” “Call,” and “Love” and punning of “Sun” in the poem suggest that Donne elevates himself to the position of God within this world. The commands in which Donne uses to explore the world echo the beginning of Genesis in which God commands the birth of the universe. Donne’s use of imperative is the recognition of the poetry as a god-like power, which Donne can no longer tolerate.
The poet becomes a paradoxical figure of failure and God balancing failure and creation within their poem. Camus noted “To create today is to create dangerously” (Camus 3), which is true of all poetry regardless of time. Camus’ quote to a certain extent can be seen as the recognition of divine-like power that poetry possesses extending back into ancient times. In Classical Greek, the term for poet, ποητής, means both creator and poet implying the poet is a maker and creator of history, songs, and myths. The use of creator implies that it is the process of creating that should be celebrated rather than the end result. The Romans take this concept a step further using vates as a word for both poet and prophet as if the poet possesses a sight that extends beyond the seeable world. The poet becomes a seer of possibilities and anticipates change within society. The sensitivity and empathy of the writer is able to pick up on the smallest ideas and rooms of society and expand them into entire worlds. These worlds are then created or destroyed according to the whims of the poet and reader.
The process of creating poetry is the process of imagining and anticipating what the world can be. The danger of poetry is its ability to impact the reader and create both positive and negative empathy. When returning home with my slightly over packed bag, I found myself carrying the works of John Donne home. When I was forced to repack my luggage at the airport, I threw away a variety of personal hygiene items such as shampoo and soap, but could not part with the works by Donne, Milton, and Dickens in my bag. Abandoning them did not seem right, because to walk away from the books was to leave the possibility of returning to a moment of shared space. The haunting magnificence of poetry is its ability to create an intimate moment even with a controversial figure such as Donne causing the reader to pause and incorporate this new view into their life. While the process may be incomplete, the power of creation and thought can still be felt by the reader and writer.
Camus, Albert. “Create Dangerously.” Translated by Justin O’Brien. London: Penguin Books, 2018.
Donne, John. “The Good-Morrow.” Seventeenth-Century British Poetry, edited by John R. Rumrich and Gregory Chaplin. New York: Norton Critical Editions, 2006.
Donne, John. “The Sun Rising.” Seventeenth-Century British Poetry, edited by John R. Rumrich and Gregory Chaplin. New York:Norton Critical Editions, 2006.
Lerner, Ben. The Hatred of Poetry. London: Macmillan, 2016.
Stubbs, John. John Donne: The Reformed Soul. London: Viking, 2006.
Stubbs, John. Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War. London: Viking, 2011.
 John Stubbs, Reprobates (New York: Norton, 2012), 38.
 See Stubbs John Donne: The Reformed Soul.
 Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016), 8.
 John Donne, “The Good Morrow,” in Seventeenth-Century British Poetry 1603-1660 edited by John Rumrich and Gregory Chaplin (New York: Norton, 2006), 26..
 Lerner 23.
 Albert Camus, “Create Dangerously,” trans. by Justin O’Brien (London: Penguin Books, 2018), 4.
 John Donne, “The Sun Rising,” in Seventeenth Century British Poetry 1603-60, edited by John Rumrich and Gregory Chaplin (New York: Norton, 2006), 25.