What if Time Stopped

Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare; Bold lover; never; never canst thou kiss, Though winning near the goal—yet, do not grieve; She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss, For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

(Keats, 1996:848)

Keats was obsessed with time and here in 'Ode On A Grecian Urn' he puts his finger on its pulse so that it does stop. He chose a moment when it was beating fast. Bliss is deferred until the next moment, yet he keeps his finger there. Why? Keats was trying to reshape time. Death is the end of time; he knows this, so why not reverse it back to a moment of bliss? Why not reverse it further back to the moment before bliss? That was what he aimed to do. Keats was using his feeling of story to show a moment overshadowed not by death, age, disease or change, but instead by what is about to happen—the lovers' kiss. Beauty is truth.

This exclusive focus on the moment is found in many contemporary poems written nearly two centuries after Keats wrote his. The use of the present tense in poetry has become almost a compulsory feature of style. It allows the poet to get close to the detail of an experience, show it in close-up, pause it for the eye's searching scrutiny. Whether or not the aim is to hold the moment at flash-point, hold it in life and so avoid what Philip Larkin called the 'long perspectives'—which lead to death—we can't be sure, but this technique still usually involves a sense of story, an overshadowing. Poets using the present tense can focus on events long in the past, thus making these present and immediate, as in these first lines from the winning poem of a recent National Poetry Competition, where the poet, Julia Copus, revisits the thoughts of a medieval illustrator of a Book of Hours:

from 'The Art ofIllumination'

At times it is a good life, with the evening sun

Gilding the abbey tower, the brook's cold waters

Sliding past and every Hour in my book a blank page, vellum pumice-storied to chalky lustres which my inks suffuse: saffron and sandarach and dragon's blood, azure and verdigris. Monsters and every type of beast curl round the words. Each man here has a past, and each man reason for his faith. I wronged A woman once and nothing I did after could atone or throw a light upon the blackness of that deed whose harm lay in the telling, not the doing.

(Copus, IOS, 13 April 2003)

This speaker's past curls round his words just as the dragons do round those he inscribes. In subjects approached with a sense of story, moments in a poem's present will have a past and future, a shadow cast by one or other of these. Another example, the following poem by Susan Burns, successfully demonstrates this type of perception. The version printed here is in draft form, yet we can see the poet already working to create habitable worlds using reality effects, voices, images, and most of all a sense of story:

'Farewell on the Town Hall Steps'

It's as good a place as any to end it. A July gone cold, the middle of an overcast night You're walking me home but we won't reach Brixton Water Lane and we both know There won't be a fight.

We sit on the concrete steps, roll a cigarette.

I can hear the goods trains at Loughborough junction, Distant sirens and your reasoning, sketching the air With a thin white cigarette paper. I don't cry then As I have made up my mind, As you are drunk to your bitten fingernails, As you can't bring the paper to your dry mouth. I take it, fumble with tobacco. Your voice thick

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