Saturday, August 29, 2015


All the Things I Shall Not Do

Charles Tomlinson (1927-2015), Selected Poems 1955-1997 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997) pp. 221-222:
                 to my wife

I see now all the things I shall not do—
Read the whole of À la Recherche to you,
Learn Greek enough to tackle Sophocles
No longer fog-bound in translatorese.
It's difficult enough to keep in trim
Italian, stop French from going dim,
See that my German doesn't wholly vanish,
Or speaking Tuscan strangulate my Spanish.
So, Sophocles, farewell. I still can pace
On uncertain feet the labyrinths of Horace—
Helped by that crib of Smart's that I once found,
Dusted and bought for far less than one pound.
That was before all selling became dealing
And profit just another word for stealing.
Go south, young man! Yet now I'm far too old
To join the other poets in that fold
Where puffs and prizes 're handled by a clique
Who haunt each other's parties week by week.
Now critics will grow kinder to my verse,
Since they can see the shadow of the hearse
Creeping across my pages. Youth, farewell,
Though not without that retrospective swell
Stretching the sails of age's caravel.
Happy those early days when we supposed
Verse either good or bad, the same as prose.
What culpable innocence, for now we see
The point is poetry's unreadability
Where unintentions couple and produce
Meanings unmeant and monsters on the loose
Less rational than that of Frankenstein
Who wished to be understood. That wish is mine.
I lived for art, as Tosca says, harmed none,
Suffered to see harms casually done;
I lived for you and friendship, made my verse
Out of that daily mutual universe
Surrounding us whichever way we look,
A plenitude to overflow each book.
And so my birthday, brief day, 's come and gone:
What solemn music shall we play it out on?
Not Götterdämmerung—the gods have died
But we remain, so why not take the tide
With Nielsen's Inextinguishable? I think
The January sun about to sink
ls all the Untergang we need tonight.
Short as the day is, yet a lingering light
Tells us the shortest day of all has been,
And leaves us now this dubious in-between,
While the year prepares to make itself anew,
As chrysalises, trees and poets do.
Hat tip: Eric Thomson.

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