What Was Poetry?

I hate Christmas, but I hate people who hate Christmas even more.
–James Schuyler

No one really knew, though everyone knew what it should be;
And now it’s just a way of being famous on a small scale.
It was supposed to be significant for its own sake,
Though that was never entirely true: human feelings
Got in the way, for while it was possible to remain unmoved
In the face of all that language, no one really wanted to:
They wanted to talk about it, to explain what it had let them see,
As though the world were incomplete before poetry filled it in.
And now there’s nothing left to see: oh, poems come and go
And everyone complains about them, but where there used to be
Arguments there’s just appreciation and indifference,
Measured praise that’s followed by forgetting. I’m as bad
As anyone: instead of reading I reread, instead of seeing
I remember, and instead of letting silence have its say
I fill it up with talk, as if the last word might be anything else.

And yet despite all this it matters. Sometimes in the midst
Of this long preparation for death that initial solitude returns
And the world seems actual and alive, as it assumes its opposite.
I think the truest thoughts are always second thoughts,
But who am I kidding, other than myself? I hope there’s
Someone, that it casts its spell beyond the small cone of light
Hovering over my desk, and that what started out one night
So long ago in silence doesn’t end that way. I fantasize
I can hear it somewhere in the realm of possibility,
But only now and then, in intervals between breaths.

John Koethe