If poets die young
they bequeath two thirds of their life to the critics
to graze and grow fat in
If poets die in old age
they live their own lives
they write their own poems
they are their own might-have-been.
Young dead poets are prized comets.
The critics queue with their empty wagons ready for hitching.
Old living poets
stay faithfully camouflaged in their own sky.
It may even be forgotten they have been shining for so long.
The reminder comes upon their falling
extinguished into the earth.
The sky is empty, the sun and moon have gone away,
there are not enough street bulbs, glow-worms, fireflies to give light
and for a time it seems there will be no more stars.
-- This poem was one of many that Janet Frame (1924-2004) never published in her lifetime. The Pocket Mirror appeared in the late 1960s in the UK, America and New Zealand and has never been out of print, and many of the poems have become classics.
"Poets" was first published posthumously in The Goose Bath (Random House NZ 2006; Wilkins Farago Australia 2008) and in Storms Will Tell (Bloodaxe Books UK, USA 2008).
Janet Frame showed this poem to her friend Landfall editor Charles Brasch on one of his visits to her house in Dunedin, but she refused to let him publish it. After Charles died in 1973, Janet sent a copy of the poem to another grieving friend of his, Margaret Scott. Janet described showing Charles the poem:
"That afternoon he asked me what I’d been writing and I was bold enough to say I had written a poem and then bold enough to get it when he asked me to show it to him. This was so unlike me, for I never show things if I can help it.
The poem was about the deaths of two poets, one in youth, the other in age. Charles liked it and suggested I send it to Landfall, which I never did, in fact I've never sent it anywhere. He liked it but he did not think it ‘wonderful’ or anything like that, nor did I, for it’s full of stupidities. We talked then about death in youth and in age, and Charles again suggested I send the poem to Landfall. He wanted people to read it and think about it. I'm sending it to you. I knew it would find its home one day."
The whole of the letter to Margaret Scott appears in Dear Charles, Dear Janet: Frame and Brasch in Correspondence which is a hand printed fine edition recently published by the University of Auckland's Holloway Press.
Since its first publication 'Poets' has struck a chord with many readers, and I know that it has already been read out at several funerals. The self-effacing Janet Frame may well have identified 'stupidities' in the composition of the poem, according to her own impossibly high standards, but she was correct in her belief that her words might also bring comfort to those facing the realities of death.
Pamela Gordon is this week's Tuesday Poem Guest Editor. She lives in Dunedin and works for the Janet Frame Literary Trust. The latest news from the Janet Frame Estate is posted at An Angel @ My Blog. Pamela has had her own poetry published in anthologies and periodicals, and occasionally takes part in poetry readings. She is currently co-editing a collection of Janet Frame's non-fiction.