When I was at Princeton, Ted Weiss, a well-known poet and the professor for one of my classes in creative writing, tentatively suggested to us that in the old days poets were supposed to be wiser than other people. He was urging us to get beyond our fascination with language for its own sake, to wonder again at men and their works — to pay attention to people, and to read old books that would instruct us in human nature. But his comment fell flat, and we didn’t talk about it again. It wasn’t going to fly, I guess, this suggestion that undergraduates at an Ivy League school may not know enough about the world yet to write about it.
I think that if you consider the history of literature, you’ll find that genius among young poets shows up in a narrow range, as they write in forms given to them by what they’ve read, or they excel at a kind of mathematics of words and their sounds, but not at revealing or attempting to fathom the way things really are. They lack judgment, simply because they lack experience. That’s why they are ready to become true believers in an ideology or the advance guard of a radical political movement. I saw that too, a few years later, when I got into a conversation with a young lady who was selling Mao’s Little Red Book near the student center at the University of North Carolina.
The author of our Poetry Aloud selection this week, Robert Browning, prided himself on being a careful and shrewd observer of people and their ways. He was the poet as judge, not in a legal or even a theological sense. He considered what he saw, entering as far as possible into the imaginations of all kinds of people, both the good and the evil, giving them a voice, and encouraging us, even enabling us, to enter those imaginations too. That was not because he was indifferent regarding good and evil — far from it! It was because he knew that the good and the evil are sometimes hard to disentangle, and because we can only fight for the one and struggle against the other if we know, in our bones, what they are, and how they may take root in a wide variety of human types, under all kinds of circumstances. His poetry enables us to be good judges, not in the first instance to cheer or to condemn, but to see, to understand.
In “How It Strikes a Contemporary,” the speaker is an ordinary fellow in Madrid, who supposes that the poet — the only one he’s ever seen in his life — is really a kind of secret inquisitor working on the sly for the King. Of course, Browning assumes that we’ll see through the speaker’s false assumption. The poet goes about the streets, looking at people, listening, thinking, judging. Otherwise he doesn’t make a show of himself.