The Vessels of His Meaning

"There is nothing so likely to hand down your name as a poem: all other monuments are frail and fading."
—Pliny the Younger

To say that O.B. Hardison, Jr., who died last August at the age of 61, was a poet is in some respects to diminish his memory. "Poet" has become a hollow accolade, a label with an honorific charge that is not unrelated to the disesteem in which most poets are actually held in a society that distrusts and resents poets and has little patience for what they do. Poetry is often demanding, after all, and it requires on the part of its audience a degree of attention and cultivation for which Jacobin egalitarianism has neither capacity nor patience. But in a larger and less polemical way, there is a sense in which that grandiose label is stylistically confining, suggesting—let us admit—a degree of withdrawal from the great issues of the culture. Poets sit on the sidelines, scribbling and entertaining themselves, while the important work of the culture goes on, strenuously elsewhere.

It was not always thus. There is another model, the all but forgotten idea of the poet who, like Chaucer or Raleigh, could be involved in affairs of state, active in exploration and military adventure and, as a parergon, tossing off a poem now and then. There have been poet-diplomats in our time, too—St. John Perse, Octavio Paz, and Basil Bunting...

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