I guess many poets hanker after fame in the way Glen Campbell thought of it ― And I’m gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me. But is that kind of famousness truly worthy of poetry?
You may never have heard of Winfield Townley Scott. The internet tells me that he is best known for the lines A million butterflies rose up from South America, / All together, and flew in a gold storm toward Spain. I came across him in the best possible way, by chance, and without anybody’s recommendation, in what used to be called “opportunity shops”, places that sold mainly second-hand trash, with the very occasional item of treasure tucked away on a dusty shelf. There he was ― represented, at least, by the poems written under his name ― down the back of a tattered paperback called 15 Modern American Poets, on p.224:
“How Shall I Ever Come to Any Good?”
How shall I ever come to any good
And get my works in schoolbooks if I use
A rough word here and there, but how shall I
Let you know me if I bequeath you only
The several photographs, the family letters?
There is no image of a tired mind
Tired of its own vanity for fame.
I turn in the comfort of the midnight rain
And as much for pleasure as necessity
Piss in the river beyond O’Ryan’s bar.
How deft this is! In the space of a few lines, we move from the declaration that “there is no image of a tired mind / Tired of its vanity for fame” to a memorably poetic moment, one that has certainly stuck in my mind for more than thirty years. As a labour, and a labour of love, the discipline of poetry writing is endlessly exacting. They say that the chance of being born a human being is like being chosen out of the all the grains of sand on all the beaches of this incomparable planet. The chance of writing a genuine poem is probably more or less the same, although my feeling is that it is even less likely …
The discipline can certainly take its toll. Thomas Berry, in The Great Work, writes splendidly about it, and its counterpart:
This mutual attraction and mutual limitation of gravitation is, perhaps, the first expression and the primordial model of artistic discipline. It gave to the universe its initial sense of being at home with itself and yet caught up in a profound discontent with any final expression of itself. We might consider, then, that the wild and the disciplined are the two constituent forces of the universe, the expansive force and the containing force bound into a single universe and expressed in every being in the universe. (“The Wild and the Sacred”)
And so, exhausted by the discipline of poetry and the nagging desire for a celebrity that eludes him, Scott “turns” out of this narrow human realm and steps back under the Big Sky into the world of nature, and natural urges. Here he finds comfort and pleasure; he also, in this moment of release, re-discovers his own wildness, a dimension that can never be adequately housed within the prison-house of fame. As Berry suggests, wildness is expansive: suddenly, this small, anxious poem opens onto a vast universe. To this day, I have always associated “O’Ryan’s bar” with the constellation of Orion and its bar or belt of three parallel dazzling stars shining from some remote part of the galaxy. Poetry is now no longer a preoccupation with success. It becomes, instead, a matter of rediscovering the cosmos.
When all is said and done, there are no famous poets; there are only famous poems. But to touch a reader in a heartfelt, headfelt manner is an event of absolute pricelessness. I hardly think of Winfield Townley Scott from one year to the next, but every so often, for no good reason, this poem of his fills my mind and we are joyfully reunited. This is anonymous fame ― which is no fame at all to the usual way of thinking ― but there’s a momentous beauty in it. Who knows how anyone’s words might be taken by a stranger, in an intimate, unknown moment that keeps poetry utterly enigmatically precious to us all.