I spent a year of college not too far from Reading, England, on the eastern outskirts of London, where I used to go for walks in the surrounding villages and countryside. One crisp autumn day in 1983, near the village of Binfield, I walked upon a large and derelict three-story mansion. It was three centuries old, and though it was being remodeled, it appeared almost abandoned. It was not fenced, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to explore. I wandered around inside, up and down the rickety staircases, into various rooms, some of them stripped completely bare, down to the sometimes crumbling bricks or the feeble wooden framing. Each room had high ceilings, and the many rooms made it clear that this was once a very comfortable estate. A few rooms were open to the elements, with some parts of the roofing in midrepair, or with windows missing. The sky was overcast but no rain was falling.
As I worked my way through the house upstairs, from one end toward the other, I was startled by voices. I immediately felt guilty, because I was trespassing, although I figured the lack of fences would be my excuse. I wanted to investigate what I’d heard, though, and moved to the window of the room I’d just entered to see where the voices were coming from. I was even more startled by what I saw. In the courtyard below, there was, of all things—fully suited and dripping wet—a scuba diver.
This was too much to resist. I didn’t care if I was trespassing. I had to find out why on earth a scuba diver was flopping around in the courtyard of this old estate. I found my way downstairs, went outside through a doorway missing its door, and across to the courtyard, to one side of a brick utility building. One man was holding a rope and some instruments in his hand. The other man, in scuba gear, was now sitting on the edge of a well, his flippers immersed in dark water that made it almost to the top. Some of the red bricks that circled the well’s edge were crumbling or missing. The opening was not more than four or five feet across, and the water was brown and soupy.
It turned out that the two men had been hired by the estate’s developers to investigate a rumour. They had no problem with me being there and said I could stay as long as I liked. They had been tasked to search the old well for a stash of gold. It was said to have been left by the poet Alexander Pope, or perhaps the poet’s father, whose old manor house I had been blithely invading. I watched as the scuba diver adjusted his mask and regulator, and put the oxygen to his mouth. He slipped into the well silently and immediately disappeared. An occasional bubble rippled the reflection of the clouds overhead. Pope had lived in the house from the time he was a child. The house was sold when Pope was at the age of nearly 31, in 1719 (he lived from 1688 to 1744). The manor was then called Whitehill House and was later renamed as Pope’s Manor. I’m not sure how deep that well was in Pope’s old home, but I’d guess about 15 or 20 feet. The diver found nothing but old scraps of metal in the stagnant and murky water. After methodically probing each brick from top to bottom with his fingers, and searching around in the silt at the bottom, he came up one last time and stripped off his gear, and I left to finish my walk. Later, the well was drained and sealed over. For many years the house was used as offices for a construction company. [As of February 2014, the ten-bedroom manor is now available for purchase for £4.4 million.]
For the moment, this story serves only to introduce the following poem:
Sound and Sense
by Alexander Pope
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learned to dance.
’Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense:
Soft is the strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth stream in smoother numbers flows;
But when loud surges lash the sounding shore,
The hoarse, rough verse should like the torrent roar;
When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw,
The line too labors, and the words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the plain,
Flies o’er the unbending corn, and skims along the main.
Hear how Timotheus’ varied lays surprise,
And bid alternate passions fall and rise!
Moving ahead two hundred years, here’s a poem by Marianne Moore (1887–1972), which I’ll quote in full for the pleasure of reading it again, though you may know it well.
by Marianne Moore
I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a
high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to
eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician—
nor is it valid
to discriminate against “business documents and
school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
insolence and triviality and can present
for inspection, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,”
shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.
Let me move ahead an additional half century, to our recent United States poet laureate, Billy Collins, from his 1988 book The Apple that Astonished Paris:
Introduction to Poetry
by Billy Collins
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
These poems cannot sufficiently represent the great sweep of poetry over the last three hundred years, but they may serve to indicate differences of form, if not of content. John Hollander, in Rhyme’s Reason, his own heuristic update to Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism,” counters Pope by saying that “Technical mastery should not astound— / The sense must seem an echo to the sound.” Thus Hollander reminds us of the great variety possible in poetry.
As for my story of the gold in Alexander Pope’s well, I believe each person who aspires to poetry has the capacity for unique and compelling expression and poetic communication, and that each of us has a stash of gold in the wells of our experience and personality. Perhaps the scuba diver at Pope’s Manor never found the stash of gold because Alexander Pope had already found it, in writing his poems. I hope that each of us here at the Poets in the Park conference will find new stashes of gold wherever we may go in our poetry.
by Nicanor Parra
(translated by Miller Williams)
Write as you will
In whatever style you like
Too much blood has run under the bridge
To go on believing
That only one road is right.
In poetry everything is permitted.
With only this condition of course,
You have to improve the blank page.