The enjoyment of art is, importantly, its own reward. But art does not leave its recipient unchanged. No doubt there are many things that can happen, many benefits and some harms that can come about. I want to suggest, here, one thing that art can do for us. This is to leave us a little freer from habitual patterns of thought; a little bit more open to possibility.
I have sometimes been embarrassed by the question: what sort of poetry do you like ? – partly because there is so much. But I have come to see that my preferences cluster round a number of particular explosions of poetic energy. Three come to mind.
The first is the sudden emergence of great poets at the end of the Roman Republic. The Roman poets of that moment – Lucretius,Catullus, Horace, Virgil and Ovid – were deeply dependent on Greek examples and on Greek philosophy. But their work effectively offers a space in which the Greek philosophers’ ideas about life are lithely tested and troped.
The second explosion happens in the early seventeenth century in England (and coincides with a similar eruption in Spain). Donne and Herbert offer an exploration of the self at the very same time that European philosophy was taking a decisive turn towards modernity. The poets’ exploration is no less pioneering than the philosophers’.
My third favoured explosion is that of the first three decades of the twentieth century. The poets who came to maturity in these decades take nothing for granted; at its best, their work reimagines the world as radically as physicists were doing at the same time. Among the best poets of this moment are are Hardy, Yeats, Lawrence, Eliot, Pound, Williams, Stevens, Moore, Loy, Frost, Machado, Lorca, Montale, Trakl, Rilke, Benn, Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Blok, Akhmatova, Pasternak, Kharms, Cavafy, and Apollinaire. Vastly diverse as they are, their work retains its freshness. Several of these poets are often seen as their country’s best in many generations. And more or less the same thing happened in music and painting. I believe we are still living in the aftershock of this event and find myself returning to and translating these authors.
One legacy of that explosion was to open up a broader space of possibility for poetry, as for other arts. That affects anyone reading or writing poetry now. I find myself drawn, as reader and writer, to the enterprise of keeping this space open. This takes a kind of energy.
Art does not literally remake the world. But the objects of art can help to release us from the manacles of the habits of consciousness. Art is not, or not usually, propaganda; but its mission is no less important.