The Unwritten Poem

by Louis Simpson

You will never write the poem about Italy.
What Socrates said about love
is true of poetry – where is it?
Not in beautiful faces and distant scenery
but the one who writes and loves.

In your life here, on this street
where the houses from the outside
are all alike, and so are the people.
Inside, the furniture is dreadful –
flock on the walls, and huge color television.

To love and write unrequited
is the poet’s fate. Here you’ll need
all your ardor and ingenuity.
This is the front and these are the heroes –
a life beginning with “Hi!” and ending with “So long!”

You must rise to the sound of the alarm
and march to catch the 6:20 –
watch as they ascend the station platform
and, grasping briefcases, pass beyond your gaze
and hurl themselves into the flames.

Notes on the Poem

Is Louis Simpson's "The Unwritten Poem" a lament for something glorious the narrator of the poem never achieved? Or is it perhaps quietly celebrating something quite different? From the outset, there is rather blunt acceptance that "You will never write the poem about Italy." But rather than being resigned or bitter, Simpson states plainly that the "beautiful faces and distant scenery" aren't the things of sustaining value anyhow. Rather, what is true is "the one who writes and loves." Unsettlingly, Simpson goes on to itemize the apparent thanklessness and plain, grim reality facing "the one who writes and loves." There is ugly sameness in company and surroundings, and it will take "all your ardor and ingenuity" to transcend it. Even ostensibly answering to the same clock and schedules as rest of the world, "the one who writes and loves" will stand back and carefully observe rather than mindlessly shuffling over the edge of the abyss. Is there something redeeming in this tradeoff? Instead of what you could have written if something conventionally beautiful was presented to you, are you much more rewarded by forging poetry from whatever is before you, and not following the masses? Do you regret the poem you'll never write, or do you relish the poems you can write with what you have?

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