I'm giving you my first raw response to each of these incidents. Of course, my reactions immediately became more complicated mixtures of pleasure, curiosity, comedy, confusion, elation. I hope I managed to respond with a reasonable amount of dignity. But I've been thinking about this strange burst of public acknowledgment and trying to parse the way in which my everyday sense of myself kept spontaneously fleeing from the identity of Poet . . . even though this is an identity that I've been cultivating for much of my life.
The reason I'm bringing up these anecdotes here is that I felt, from your remarks on the Tu Fu poems, that you were beginning to ponder the way in which the specifics of language not only build a particular piece of work but also build a particular poet's identity within the larger body of his work and the lifeline of literature. I have no idea if Tu Fu read Japanese poetry. I have no idea if Hemingway read Tu Fu. But you have: you are the reader who is drawing those connections, nurturing that spark among the writers.
This is the reader's gift to the writer. But would the ungrateful writer respond graciously to your gift? On Thursday, I certainly did not respond that way to my sweet readers. And that disconnect resonated with Carlene's thoughts about lingering over lines such as "It is / Sad, meeting each other again," with David's thoughts about soldiers at the Battle of the Wilderness. Ruth wrote, "How often we meet the past and expect one thing, but find it doesn't match our expectations." The poetic imagination--the inner flame, the artistic self, whatever one might call it--cannot help but clash with the actuality of the world. And it is so sad, and so painful, and I don't know why it happens. That collision can itself be hugely influential in the conversation between actor and spectator: I think this may be true especially in the performing arts. But it hurts.
In his letter to me, Donald Hall was responding to the copy of the The Conversation he'd just received. The book reprints a poem by his late wife, Jane Kenyon. It's a long, many-sectioned piece titled "Having It Out with Melancholy," and Don said to me:
I'm delighted to see Jane there, in her glory. Most folks just print "Let Evening Come." I suppose it's Jane's "Lake Isle of Innisfree." [But "Having It Out with Melancholy"] was probably the poem that Jane was proudest of.I reprinted Jane's poem because I, her reader, admire it immensely. Her husband, who loved her dearly and nurtured her work, wrote to tell me how much this poem mattered in their shared lives.
How would she respond to our pleasure and admiration, this poet of elegy and sadness? I don't know. But I do know that she would struggle, she would have to struggle. How could she not? For she is the poet who wrote, in "Evening Sun,"
And I knew then
that I would have to live, and go on
living: what a sorrow it was; and still
what sorrow burns
but does not destroy my heart.