“What we take out of life is the luminous moment, which can be a bare branch against a morning sky so overcast it’s in white face, seen through a window that warps the view because the glass has begun to melt with age. Or it can be the face of a beautiful man seen in passing on a crowded street, because beauty is always passing, and you see it but it doesn’t see you. It’s the promise that beauty is possible and the threat that it’s only momentary: if someone doesn’t write it down it’s gone. The moment vanishes without a trace and then the person who experiences that moment vanishes and then there’s nothing. Except perhaps the poem, which can’t change anything. As Auden wrote, poetry makes nothing happen, which also implies the possibility of making “nothing” an event rather than a mere vacancy. Poetry rescues nothing and no one, but it embodies that helpless, necessary will to rescue, which is a kind of love, my love for the world and the things and people in the world.
In a graduate contemporary poetry class I took some twenty years ago, a fellow student complained that a poem we were reading was “Just trying to immortalize this scene.” I found it an odd objection, since I thought that’s what poems were supposed to do. One is deluded if one believes that one can actually preserve the world in words, but one is just playing games if one doesn’t try.
The world cannot be saved, in any of the several senses of the word. To save the world would be to stop it, to fix it in place and time, to drain it of what makes it world: motion, flux, action. As Yeats wrote in “Easter 1916,” “Minute by minute they change;/ …. The stone’s in the midst of all.” Poet and critic Allen Grossman is not the first to observe that poetry is a deathly activity, removing things from the obliterating stream of meaningless event that is also the embodied vitality of the world and of time’s action in and upon the world, which creates and destroys in the same motion. The stream of time is both life and that which wears life down to nothing. “Poetry is the perpetual evidence, the sadly perpetual evidence, of the incompleteness of the motive which gives rise to it” (Grossman 71).”