No doubt there are many good poems only one person ever knows about. Such poems could be a consolation and a pleasure to their makers, and might be subtle cultural objects in their own right, but readers of poetry have nothing to do with them. Such poems might be important, but only in a private way. To become important in any other way, poems must become shared objects in the material world, and their existence as objects is a fundamental feature of our experience of them.
Poems we can know about are physical as well as conceptual objects, and so they lead full physical lives, subject to the winds and the weather, exerting their own force on the world, containing within themselves associations with a myriad of other objects, with people, and with the broad forces of history. Poems are ideas, and they are also ink. The inkiness of poems allies them with the crumbling material world, but their ideas can make them seem permanent, free of time’s grip.
Like the Great House turned hotel, the conceptual space marked out by a poem inevitably gets reoccupied as time goes on. Or: like the old iron that becomes a doorstop, poems get used for different purposes, and the variety of these purposes increases as poems escape the glowering eyes of their makers. The iron was meant to be an iron, but it also makes a great doorstop. What is more, as the centuries unfurl, the reasons for bothering to reuse and reoccupy old poems become more difficult to articulate. Why be interested in an old box of (someone else’s) feelings when you have so many boxes and feelings of your own? The Great House might become a hotel, or it might become a field of wildflowers. The old poem has infinite opportunities to vanish.
This book is about what poetry is and what poetry has been used for, as enacted in the trip through time of a single poem: Thomas Wyatt’s “They Flee from Me,” first composed in the 1530s, in Henry VIII’s court, and currently, five hundred years later, a popular resident of both anthologies and literature courses. In spite of and because of its inkiness, “They Flee from Me” has been remembered, but remembering it has also included a lot of forgetting and losing, and all sorts of human frailty and strengths—life and death and fire and clear-sighted calm. “They Flee from Me” makes a good object for this story, since the poem itself is about just these things: remembering, and forgetting, and frailty, and strength.