James Wright: 'A Poem Recreates Itself'

John Berryman was a very great poet and I think his work is going to endure. And not just because he was a good craftsman, but because he was demonstrating in his poetry, I think without realizing it completely, the fact that a poem is not only a single thing that can be made and very beautifully constructed, but that poetry is also something that can go on being made and it can almost reach a point where it recreates itself. By the growth of his work, and he never stopped growing, he was showing that there is something about poetry in the human imagination which is like the spring.

Tolstoy worried about this question. He was asked in a letter by a pacifist group if he could give them a definition of religion and, if he could do that, to explain to them the relation between religion, that is, what a person believes, and morality, that is, the way he acts in accord with some notion of how he ought to act. Tolstoy worried about this letter, and then as I recall it, he said: “I can only go back to myself. I look around myself and I see every year that, no matter what people do to themselves and to one another, the spring constantly renews itself. This is a physical fact, not a metaphysical theory. I look at every spring and I respond to it very strongly. But I also notice that every year the spring is the same new spring and every year I am one year older. I have to ask the question: what is the relation between my brief and tragic life and this force in the universe that perpetually renews itself? I further believe that every human being asks this question. He cannot avoid asking it—it is forced upon him. And his answer to that question is his religion. If he says the relation between me and this thing is nothing, then his religion is nihilism. As for morality, what ought I to do? I wish I knew.”

…There is another tradition I’d like to mention. It is based on sheer arrogance, the determination to live. Poetry can keep life itself alive.