Words Against Time

by Matthew Sitman

Reflecting on the life and work of Paul Petrie, Christina Pugh muses on one aspect of the poet’s temperament:

“Poets are conservative,” Paul the nonconformist used to say, 
hastening to explain that this conservatism had nothing to do with politics. “They want to conserve memory and experience.” The drive toward poetic conservation is occasional, I’d argue, whether we’re conserving something personal, historical, or neither. It can transform a previously unnoticed moment — a patch of red wing, or television noise, or a sentence in Kant’s Critique of  Judgment — into the occasion for language. Where is the poet, of any aesthetic stripe, who doesn’t rush to conserve even a fraction of the spark that might blaze as a poem? This need to preserve moments of a perceptual, emotional, or intellectual life in poetic lines does constitute, again in Paul’s words, a “race with time and the devil” — a race that none of us can win. As Sharon Cameron says, writing of  Dickinson’s work in particular, “the poles of death and immortality are thus those states that poetic language shuttles between.”