Recognizing limits is a mark of wisdom. One of Benedict’s instructions to the monks under his care was “day by day remind yourself that you are going to die.” To death-denying Americans and kindred spirits, this sounds morose; in truth, the recognition of the limit of a human lifespan is the narrow portal to a wide joy.
In a delightful recent New Yorker article, poet (and New Hampshire resident) Donald Hall reflects on a life of reading poetry. I snipped a bit of it for highlighting, and you will find the snippet below– but really, if you have the time, I recommend the whole essay.
Hall’s particular point is that a poet cannot know if her work is “any good,” “goodness” being measured by both quality and durability. Awards and accolades are nice, says Hall, but prove nothing. Extrapolating Hall’s point about poetic work to all human endeavor is apt: this stripping away of the importance– and even the authority– of outward, worldly accomplishment can leave a person momentarily untethered, suddenly weightless and unsure of the ground. If we are not to be measured by our trophies, plaques, certificates, pay stubs, contact lists, and badges, how is a human life measured? Even if your answer doesn’t refer to a god or gods, it’s still a religious question: how is a human life measured?
Here’s the snippet from Donald Hall:
It’s O.K. to be pleased when an audience loves you, or treat you as deathless, but you must not believe them. If a poet is any good, how would the listeners know? Poets have no notion of their own durability or distinction. When poets announce that their poems are immortal, they are depressed or lying or psychotic. Interviewing T. S. Eliot, I saved my cheekiest question for last. “Do you know if you’re any good?” His revised and printed response was formal, but in person he was abrupt: “Heavens no! Do you? Nobody intelligent knows if he’s any good.” No honor, no publication proves anything. Look at an issue of the Atlantic in 1906; look at a Poetry from 1931. A Nobel Prize means nothing. Look in an almanac at the list of poets who have won a Pulitzer Prize; look at the sad parade of Poets Laureate.