One of life’s unforgettable moments: a great poet hands you a typescript copy of an unpublished poem. Its strike-outs and marginalia still mark the page. It hasn’t found its readers yet, and there is no body of opinion about it to influence your own.
So, sitting in an immaculate Stanford condo on a balmy August afternoon, with the his forebears’ books and maritime paintings as a backdrop (the family goes back pretty much to the Conquest), I felt a quiet thrill when Robert Conquest handed me his latest poem, “Getting On,” which opens:
Into one’s ninetieth year.
Memory? Yes, but the sheer
Seethe as the half-woken brain’s
Great gray search-engine gains
Traction on all one’s dreamt, seen, felt, read,
. . And on one’s dead.
-Which makes one’s World, one’s Age, appear
Faint wrinkles on the biosphere
Itself the merest speck in some
Corner of the continuum.
It won’t be quite the same thrill for you, but you can now read the whole poem online — Dave Lull, patron saint of bloggers, tipped me off that it’s finally been published in the October 2nd edition of the British magazine Standpoint — here. “I don’t think any poet has written as well about aging as he has,” said R. S. Gwynn, Bob Conquest‘s friend and fellow poet.
The 93-year-old poet is also the courageous historian who wrote the landmark books that exposed Soviet Communism in the years when too many were defending it — The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrows. He published his seventh collection of poems last year and a book of limericks this year. He and his absolutely charmer of a wife Liddie were fretting about the health of their close friend Christopher Hitchens when I dropped by; Hitchens had just been diagnosed with esophogeal cancer, and cancelled his usual visit in for Bob’s birthday on July 15. Hitchens wrote in his new memoir, Hitch-22, that Conquest is “great poet and even greater historian.”
Bob finished his 200-line poetic summa about the same time he handed it to me. I wrote then that this poem might prove to be among his greatest. See if you agree (though I could have done without the Goldie Hawn reference.)
Not into great poems? Try a few of his limericks here.