The concluding couplet of Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” has tended to dominate our consciousness of that poem; so much so that we tend to lose sight of the complex context in which those famous pronouncements are embedded. We forget that it is the urn, not Keats, telling us that truth and beauty are one and the same, and telling us that the knowledge that this is so is the only knowledge we need. Of course, it is Keats, the poet, from whom everything in the poem ultimately emanates. Still, the fact that Keats places these thoughts in the mouth (so to speak) of the urn inserts a degree of detachment between the pronouncements and the poet, allowing Keats to avoid committing himself fully to them while at the same time granting them an authority of their own. Though we can say, surely, based on the available evidence—Keats’s other poems, his letters—that at times, at least, he did believe that there could be no separation between beauty and truth. And we can hardly doubt that there were other times when, like the rest of us, he did not, and could not, believe it.
Who is the audience for these claims? Not the readers of the time: Keats always wrote with the future in mind, and what Keats is imagining when those resonant, famous lines are delivered is, precisely, the future, a time when time has consumed Keats and his contemporaries and, in doing so, put an end to their sufferings and sorrows:
When old age shall this generation waste
Though shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
That future, as unknowable as it must have been, must have seemed, from one point of view, a source of consolation. Not that Keats expected eventual perfection, a utopia free from pain. There would still be woe, but it would be other woe, it would be others who would bear the burden of carrying on, longing, living, suffering. The urn, meanwhile—like all art, like poetry—brings him into communion with that future; having been his friend, it is now theirs. Of course, I write theirs, but I mean ours. We are Keats’s future readers, the unknowable beings he projected; the “other woe / Than ours” is ours, and is, from our perspective, other woe than theirs, other woe than his. Does time really heal all wounds, as they say? Or does it merely redistribute them?
Whatever Keats might have thought about that dimly intuited future, whatever role it might have played in his emotional life, the existence of that future was no doubt something he simply assumed. Not just that there would be something after he was gone, but that it would be a world that in certain ways resembled his. “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death,” he wrote at one point, in a letter to his brother. Of course, he did not always feel so confident about his personal fate. But that there would still be poetry in English, that poetry would still exist and be read, that some of the poets of the past and (his) present would still be remembered, whether or not he did indeed manage to be one of them—this, he simply took for granted.
Keats seems to feel no need, in this poem at least, to try to imagine the future states of world that he is soon to leave behind, the world into which the urn will survive him. No need, in particular, to imagine the people who will inhabit that world, the ones to whom the urn—and, presumably, his poetry—will speak. Will they need to be told that beauty is truth, truth beauty? Will they even care? That particular concern, perhaps—that the people of the future would be indifferent to truth and beauty, that they would have turned their attention, and their hearts, to other things—did not cross Keats’s mind. It would not have occurred to him to wonder whether the world he knew would be succeeded by a culture with a voracious hunger for fake news, flagrantly dishonest politicians, and strip malls, a culture that not only is willing to tolerate global deforestation, the imminent disappearance of many of our most beautiful species, and increasingly frequent climactic disasters as the price of progress, but seems bizarrely blasé and untroubled by them and tends to write off those who do get worked up about such matters as hysterics. A culture that thinks it is essential that college students learn the “skills” necessary to work in an Amazon warehouse but is uncertain as to whether subjects as impractical as poetry or history ought to be available even as options. The human products of such a culture are unlikely to show much interest in anyone’s pronouncements about truth or beauty, let alone those that emanate from an artifact—an urn, a poem—that has traveled through centuries in order to be in a position to speak to them.
I suppose I am imagining that Keats, if he had been able to predict the future, and been granted (or rather, afflicted with) an accurate vision of the world we now occupy, would have felt a dismay somewhat related to, though importantly distinct from, the dismay W.B. Yeats seems to be expressing in “Sailing to Byzantium”:
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
Of course, as we all know, the speaker is not the poet, and while Yeats no doubt did feel somewhat removed from, and felt at least some degree of disapproval of, the young people he saw frolicking irresponsibly around him, neglecting the eternal and commending the ephemeral, he also, no doubt, identified with them on some level. Enough, at the very least, to provoke a little resentment, a little envy. More importantly, Yeats’s dismay, if we do take it to be his, is importantly different from Keats’s (or rather, from mine, which I am projecting onto Keats): it is directed at those who are so moved by the pleasures and beauties of the moment—the “sensual music” of love and lust—and who, as a result, underpraise the intellect (which Yeats, or, at least, the Yeats who speaks the poem, equates with the eternal). But the representative individuals of our current culture, so far as I can tell, don’t give much of a toss about truth, beauty, the intellect, or the sensual; they seem, indeed, indifferent if not averse to all of those. I often think that I would be happy—or, at any rate, happier—to be surrounded by people who were obsessed with sensual pleasure (what music has there ever been that is more sensual than that of Yeats or Keats?), rather than in the decidedly un-sensual items that seem to command people’s attention today: gadgets, gimmicks, and gizmos, social media platforms and apps, and all manner of corporate-produced consumer goods we are meant to take both as the fruits and as the proof of progress.
It’s a fair assumption that you, like me, are largely a product of that contemporary culture; and so you, like me, must define your identity in part in terms of a stance toward that array of technological consumer goods whose existence is presented to us as the great boon of our current age, whether you are enthusiastic about them or bored and disturbed by them, whether having such a range of options to choose from makes you feel free or makes you more aware of the lack of freedom we are all, at some deeper level, suffering from. If you fall on the skeptical side of things, you might well be inclined to wonder, as I often am, where this is all going. And this brings me back to what I wanted to say, in the first place, about Keats, and about us: that one thing that might well swim into our consciousness while we are trying to read Keats is that he had a different orientation to time, and in particular to the future, than we do. Keats, again, does not feel the need that many poets writing today feel to wonder about readers of the future, the people who might encounter their works in a few decades’ or a few centuries’ time. To ‘wonder about’ future readers means both to wonder what they will be like and, on some level, to wonder whether such readers will exist at all. Today’s poets, in as much as their work is oriented toward the future—and all literature, by its very nature, is to some significant degree oriented toward the future—speak across a divide composed not simply of time but of, one must suppose, radical difference. And this—not knowing who one is writing to, not being certain that one is writing for anyone—is surely a difficulty that many contemporary poets feel quite keenly.
That line from Yeats, about “monuments of unageing intellect,” has called to my mind Mark Strand’s book-length poem, The Monument, a fascinating and beguiling work, first published in 1978, that I have found myself returning to again and again since I first encountered it years ago. The Monument is very much about our feelings about the future, our inability to know it, our desire to be remembered or known by those who inhabit it. The poem is highly aware of its audience and, at the same time, highly aware that it cannot possibly know anything, really, about its audience. That audience—Strand’s future readers, or future readers in general—are here represented by and collapsed into a single figure, a figure identified in the poem’s dedication:
To the translator of
in the future:
A good deal of the poem is specifically addressed to that imagined future translator, so much so that at times the poem nearly becomes a dialogue between Translator and Strand. One might expect it to be a fairly one-sided dialogue, but, in one of the poem’s many clever moves, there are in fact places where Translator responds, given in italicized notes. A naïve reader might, then, take Strand on this basis to be an optimist, assuming not only that people in the future will read The Monument but that it will be translated into other languages.
But the truth is that Strand is well aware that the first and primary readers of the poem will be us—his contemporaries or near-contemporaries—and that the business of the poem’s being directly addressed to its future translator is a fiction, not to be taken literally. Indeed it cannot be taken fully literally: the aforementioned presence of notes inserted by the narrator tips us off to the fact that the situation is a fiction. For the notes themselves, as we are well aware, have been composed by Strand; and we are, of course, reading the untranslated poem in the English in which it was originally composed. By stocking his poem with such references to the future (and the present, reimagined as the past), Strand is coyly inviting us to project ourselves into the future, to imagine what might happen to the poem in times to come. By such means, he calls our attention to the much larger temporal context in which any work of art situated and by which it is surrounded, a context that is often obscured by our narrow predilections on our feelings about it and on our responses to, experiences of, and relations with it.
Moreover, in choosing the work’s future translator as a stand-in not only for all future readers but for the poem’s readers in the present, Strand puts into play, without having to articulate them directly, two further thoughts. First, that reading is always an act of translation: every reader is a translator. The act of reading is, in part, constituted by multiple simultaneous acts of translation, from the ink on a page to a voice in one’s mind, from the brute physical object you hold in your hands to meanings, images, feelings, experiences; a translation, too, from one human mind (the author’s) to another (the reader’s). And second, that any sort of communication taking place between past and future, regardless of the temporal direction or of the parties involved, must also constitute an act of translation, for the world into which the words are projected is not the same as the world from which they originated. Things change; language changes; meaning changes. Just ask any high school kid struggling with Shakespeare, or any scholar who has studied the Second Amendment. (As Strand advises his postulated future translator: “There are words that I use, which should not constrain you. It is possible that they will not exist in your time or in your language. In either case, find words for which you yourself have a fondness.” (Section 14)) The etymological roots of translation reveal it to be an act of “carrying across,” a bringing of a message or vessel from one place to another across some sort of divide, some sort of gap. Whatever remains of the past has been carried across to us, has been translated. And what remains of it, and of us, for those who come after us—whatever monuments we manage to make survive—will also have to be carried across.
Carried across what? Across time, across the asymmetry of time, which is constituted, in large part, by the asymmetry of knowing:
“Let me introduce myself. I am … and so on and so forth. Now you know more about me than I know about you.” (Section 1)
Carried across to whom? The effort to imagine them is one of The Monument’s primary motifs:
“It is a struggle to believe I am writing to someone else, to you, when I imagine the spectral conditions of your existence. This work has allowed you to exist, yet this work exists because you are translating it. Am I wrong? It must be early morning as you write. You sit in a large, barely furnished room with one window from which you can see a gray body of water on which several black ducks are asleep. How still the world is so many years from now. How few people there are.” (Section 4)
Part of the joke of The Monument, and the source of a good deal of its poignance, is the way Strand emphasizes the asymmetry of the writer’s situation with respect to time, and the degree of our ignorance of the future, while at times allowing himself to pretend that there is no such ignorance, that somehow we can, through imagination, know the people of the future as well and in as much detail as they are (as they will be) able to know us. “I am reaching over hundreds of years as if they did not exist,” Strand writes, “imagining you at this moment trying to imagine me, and proving finally that imagination accomplishes more than history.” (Section 2) This is, indeed, the magical power of imagination. The cost of it, and history’s advantage over such pure acts of imagination, is that we cannot be confident to have imagined correctly, we cannot claim it is even probable that we have gotten it right. There is no basis on which to rest such claims. Imagining our contemporaries, the people we come face to face with every day, the ones who gets stuck in traffic with us and sit in the dark next to us at movie theaters and ride the elevators with us and, sometimes, acknowledge us as their fellow travelers with a meeting of the eyes that lasts, in nearly all cases, for only a moment, if even that, is challenging enough.
It must be early morning as you write. This is absurd, of course; why “must” this be so? All the more absurd when we recall that the future translator of The Monument is in fact a fiction. But of course, if Strand is imagining the future translator into existence then he can imagine whatever details he likes; and if he stipulates that they do their work in the early morning, then so be it. The power of the imagination in this respect is unconstrained, almost godlike. And if we are imagining our fictional creation as a real person, then we must imagine them as a person who does, indeed, perform their work during some particular period of time, and as someone whose surroundings are fully concrete and precisely detailed. For real persons do not live, or work, in abstract, half-finished, half-imagined environments. Despite our inability to know, or even imagine, the lives of future persons, the fact is that their lives (so long as they still are able to exist at all) will be as real, concrete, and detailed as ours. The limits of knowledge and imagination make them, to some degree, unreal to us; but they, whoever they are, will in no way be unreal to themselves. The ethical takeaway is straightforward: Human beings are never unreal to themselves.
What would you ask the people of the future, those who will come after us, if you could? First, if they are out there at all. If they exist. Are you receiving me? Hello, hello? Is this thing on? Second—well, perhaps at this point we would give in to narcissistic self-concern, and find ourselves unable to resist the urge to find out what they think of us, how they remember us. Whether they blame us for their current condition, whatever it might be, as they surely would be entitled to. But I would like to think that we could rise above that temptation, and instead ask about them, how they are doing, what condition they are in. What condition the planet is in, the planet they have inherited. How bad, how costly, the inheritance tax on that particular bequest turned out to be. Whether they have found some fixes for some of the problems that stymied us. Whether they intend to take better care of it than we did. How they feel about their future, and the people who will come after them. And, more generally, what is it like, the future world, and the life they have been able to make in it?
Or, as James Richardson asks in “To the Next Centuries,” one of the most beautiful poems in recent memory,
Is there autumn there, is there leaf smoke, is the air
blued and mapled, oaked and appled and wined,
is that tang, that ache for who knows?
gone from your sweaters and hair?
Are there trees, even, do they break out
in uncontrollable cold fires,
do they shatter in long, unreal downstreamings,
is October the same without them, is our sadness
so river-and-wind swift, and so free, is it still
our sharpest seeing, if we have not learned from them
how to be taken apart, how to be blown away?
“To the Next Centuries,” which opens Richardson’s gorgeous 2016 book, During—possibly Richardson’s strongest and most memorable book, and those who know his work will know that that is saying something—continues in this vein, asking unanswerable questions, raising doubts, expressing concerns and curiosities, embarking on various flights of fancy. A particularly moving passage raises a question I want to ask, too: has everything been civilized, domesticated? Are there animals?
Is there no wild desire, no wild with regret
because no animals are wild, because the hills
are leveled and the valleys raised
because there is no clear and endless sky?
Reading through Jorie Graham’s latest collection, To 2040, I kept sensing echoes of Richardson’s poem. Not necessarily conscious or deliberate echoes; I don’t know whether or not Graham has read “To the Coming Centuries.” But, aside from the differences in certain surface qualities of their language—in particular, Richardson tends to work with, rather than against, the syntactical structures of ordinary sentences and paragraphs, and his language tends to be lush and expensive where Graham’s is austere and empirically precise—his poem would not otherwise be at all out of place in To 2040. Graham’s book begins with a poem called “Are We.” She, too, it turns it, is concerned about the fate of the animals:
extinct yet. Who owns
the map. May I
look. Where is my
claim. Is my history
verifiable. Have I
included the memory
of the animals. The animals’
memories. Are they
still here. Are we
Perhaps, during times of human crisis and struggle, it falls largely on poets to worry about the animals. (Not to mention the plants, the algae, the lichens, etc.—as evidenced by recent books by Brenda Hillman, CD Wright, and Forrest Gander, among others.) As badly as we have treated the planet’s nonhuman inhabitants, the fact is that without them the human species would be terrifyingly alone; and, too, that without the alien eyes of creatures utterly unlike us in so many ways, a great deal of the world would go unseen:
Everything hangs in the balance, say the looping vines
the late red light begins articulating. Think about it, they scrawl,
try to remember
what it was you loved, try to clean up your memories
in time. The dragonflies begin as I lie back down.
I try to recall how I’ve gotten this far.
Every wing in the swarm also benzene-rainbowed
& clouding me
As we round the bend–& everywhere their eyes, their thousands of eyes.
They see nothing we see I think …
“Are We,” too, displays a fine awareness of how much our spiritual well-being depends on the existence—no, not just the existence, the presence—of others profoundly unlike ourselves. As it proceeds it takes up the theme of contact between the human and the non-human, of how much we need it and what its loss would deprive us of. At one point a raven enters the poem and then disappears, leaving the speaker to wonder whether it was ever really there at all:
… Is this a real
encounter I ask. Of the old
kind. When there were
says the light. You
are barely here. The
raven left a
long time ago…
Exactly what this “light” is, and why it is speaking to us, remains a mystery. But answers have to come from somewhere; and in this imagined (and possibly post-apocalyptic) landscape, in which the population often seems to have been reduced to us and only us, few other potential sources of answers remain. In To 2040, when questions are not directed toward the unknowable future itself, they are often posed to some other entity that is equally unlikely to offer up an answer, to the world itself or else some elemental aspect of it:
… Which way
do we go
I ask the air…
(“I Am Still”)
survive at the end
of this story, I ask
To which we might want to reply, on behalf of the sun: what, precisely, do we mean by we? And what, precisely, do we mean by survive? Suppose our descendants take forms and live in ways we would not recognize and could not comprehend: would this count as survival, or does it constitute a kind of extinction? At times, the fear that Strand’s Monument hints at now and then without fully expressing or giving into—that the future might be so radically different from the present that our works and thoughts will simply untranslatable, that we would be unable to recognize them as readers and they would be unable to recognize us as members of their community, and perhaps of their species—surfaces in To 2040, as here, in the opening lines of the title poem:
With whom am I speaking, are you one or many, what are u, are u, do I make my-
self clear, is this which we called speech what u use, are u a living form such as the
form I inhabit now letting it speak me….
The people of the future, supposing that phrase does not denote an empty category, might resemble us on the outside, from across a room, at a distance. They might be, from a biological point of view, indistinguishable from us. But will they be readers? Will they speak our language, or for that matter any language? And if they have a language, will they care about it, will they take delight in it, the way our poets do? Will their language attempt to touch things lovingly, to hold and cherish them, as the language of poets does? Or will it have become purely an instrument of measurement and domination? Perhaps they will simply not be interested in, or care about, the things that interest us and that we care for. No matter how they might resemble us, superficially, biologically, a truly radical difference of language, of feeling, of desire, might itself constitute a kind of extinction.
As the titles of both poems indicate, “The Monument,” like “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” purports to concern something more solid and physically robust than a poem; yet, like its predecessor, it is also clearly largely (and really) about itself, and about poetry as an art—an art that, like the plastic arts, aspires to endure and survive into the future in ways that the organic beings who design and produce them cannot. (“Why have I chosen this way to continue myself under your continuing gaze?” Strand writes. “I might have had my likeness carved in stone.” But, as Shelley’s “Ozymandias” reminds us, some things last longer than stone.) One of the ironic complexities underlying both poems is the fact that, because poems are less concrete than the physical objects that strike us as so temporally robust, and so not dependent on any particular physical matter in order to endure, they may well be more capable of surviving the damages and diminishments of time. And one of the fundamental anxieties driving works like “To the Next Centuries” and the poems of To 2040 is that the future history of the human species might deviate from the course that we poets desire, and might not allow for such survival. Poems, as much as vinyl records or CDs, celluloid films or DVDs, floppy discs or aluminum hard drives, require playback mechanisms; they do not read themselves. In the case of poems, the playback technology is a combination of culture and biology, in human form. The playback technology is us.
To 2040 features three epigraphs. The third comes from Samuel Beckett’s play, Krapp’s Last Tape: “Past midnight. Never knew such silence. The earth might be uninhabited.” Indeed, though the book often seems to be populated by multiple voices, the overriding sense is of emptiness, of isolation, of abandonment. (Perhaps, the reader feels, what sometimes sounds like a multiplicity is really a single, fragmented person talking to herself in various guises. Or perhaps they are disembodied voices, such as we are more and more frequently confronted with in our daily lives: voices without voiceboxes, without bodies, without persons.) That sense runs through Richardson’s poem, too, and through much of During. And when Strand, in The Monument, imagines his future translator working away, he pictures them working “in a large, barely furnished room” and comments, as you will recall, “How still the world is so many years from now. How few people there are.” Why is it that when we imagine the future, we so often see it as largely unpopulated, even empty? And what is our place, what place could there possibly be for us, in such emptiness? Perhaps, if I really were offered the chance to ask a question of those who will replace us on this planet, the question would have to be the one famously posed by Rilke in his second Duino Elegy: “This infinite space into which we dissolve, then—does it taste of us?”