Poetry and evidence

My friend Henry, on July 14, 1852, wrote in his journal:

A writer who does not speak out of a full experience uses torpid words, wooden or lifeless words, such words as “humanitary,” which have a paralysis in their tails.

Here he expresses his belief in a falsehood, but a falsehood that is full of sustenance. The author’s hope is that the life of his words should give some evidence of the life that produced them, that a vigorous body will exude vigorous words, and a sluggish, sluggish. He expects that his words will carry a double load, not only their meaning but their history. They are to serve as a trace from which one can reconstruct their origin. The hope, in other words, is that communication will prove possible. Even if the contact is but glancing, tangential, still two minds may come in contact.

Henry writes (July 26, now):

Most poems, even epics, are like the wings come down to earth, while the poet whose adventurous flight they evidence has been snapped up by the ravenous vulture of this world.

He asks of a poem that it be not merely a window into that flight but the very agent of it, not life itself but the implement life used. The poem would then serve as a proof, maybe not conclusive, but as close as may be reasonably hoped, that such a flight occurred.

I said that Henry is expressing a falsehood, and I maintain it. Certainly I do not deny that from an author’s literary excretions we may reconstruct flights and other such journeys. But these are flights of fancy, our own fancy. The poem is not evidence. It is an arrangement of words, and many paths may lead to it. Honest transcript or clever fake—we can never access the information that would decide this. Thoreau—surprisingly, for him—underestimates our solitude.

But if the poem, or the literary work more generally, cannot serve as evidence in this way, then why these reconstructions? Why make such assessments of authenticity? The author, after all, does not stand to benefit: he flew, or faked, and must live with the fact, regardless of our verdict. He is immune to our judgments. But we are not. It is an operation we perform on ourselves, by means of the poem, this act of reconstruction. It is narcissistic as anything is. Not solipsistic—we leave our own deposits as material for the next generation—but self-centered. Of course, we must not delude ourselves that our authenticity, if we possess it, will be discovered.



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