I’m going to completely expose my ignorance here, writing about something I don’t know anything about. I want to write about poetry, and it’s awkward because I don’t write poetry (at least not that I’m willing to show anyone), and don’t read it as much as I should. And of course some of you guys in AML are wonderful poets. But I like poetry enough to worry about it, and there’s a kind of poem that I particularly love which I don’t see much of anymore, which is probably just because I’m an ignoramus who doesn’t know where to look for it.
But. Okay. Here goes. In 1897, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. That kind of occasional poetry is supposed to be really enthusiastically celebratory, and the poem he wrote wasn’t–it was kind of a downer, honestly: titled Recessional, about the inevitable decline of the Empire over which Victoria presided. Set to music, it’s in our hymnal: God of Our Fathers, Known of Old. It was considered such an important poem that it was published on the front page of the London Times. It’s not really saying that the British Empire was, you know, wrong–Kipling was an imperialist. But, he’s saying, we’re too arrogant, we’re too quick to punish, too prone to violence, too, I don’t know, lacking a proper humility, too removed from noblesse oblige. The last verse is not in our hymnal, but it’s astonishing: “For heathen heart that puts her trust In reeking tube and iron shard–All valiant dust that builds on dust, And guarding calls not Thee to guard. For frantic boast and foolish word, Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!” Lest we forget, lest we forget. It’s D%C 121 set to verse: “We have learned by sad experience. . . .”
It’s perhaps the outstanding example of what I’m calling a ‘zeitgeist’ poem, a poem that captures the spirit of an age in ways nothing else can. That’s the power of great poetry–the concentrated power of the right words, the right images. It’s what Yeats did so brilliantly with Second Coming. The blood and horror of the Great War having just concluded, Yeats was able to sum up: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.” He concludes: What rough beast, its hour come round at last Slouches toward Jerusalem to be born?”
I love lots of poems, but there’s something sort of marvelously prophetic about a few poems, those moments where someone captures an entire age, an entire culture. Eliot did it with Prufrock, I think, and Phillip Larkin with Aubade, and Frost with Fire and Ice. The poem that does it better than any, for me, is the poem I once tried, as a teenager, to memorize: Howl. Ginsburg wrote it the year before I was born: I’m writing right now from memory: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” One sentence. I checked and I got one word wrong–I had ‘sacred’ instead of ‘heavenly.’
Poetry is dying, folks say, and in some ways it’s true. My son is in a creative writing program in Minnesota, and he said to me the other day, most published poetry is written by creative writing teachers in universities, and so they write about what it’s like being a university creative writing teacher. That’s probably unkind and likely very inaccurate, but what I do think is true is that we don’t see the big important ‘the world will never be the same after this poem, because it captures our time so perfectly’ kind of poem much anymore.
Or, rather, people DO still write this kind of poetry, they just don’t think of it as poetry. In that same conversation with my son, I asked ‘who killed poetry?’ We talked about it. It had to be someone really good, someone who loved poetry and was great a writing it, someone who killed the art form by dragging it somewhere it couldn’t survive without meaning to. We agreed–it was Dylan. Bob Dylan. Because the greatest zeitgeist poetry of my youth was his: “The line it is drawn and the curse it is cast, The slow one now will later be fast, As the present now will later be past, the order is rapidly fadin’, and the first one now will later be last, For the times they are a’changin’.” Dylan was, openly and self-consciously, a zeitgeist poet, but he wasn’t really a poet per se–he was a singer and songwriter, and of course completely brilliant at both. That’s where poetry went–if you want to write zeitgeist poetry today, it’s best to rap it. The reason people still pay attention to Kurt Cobain is because he was a zeitgeister. Thom York, and Brandon Flowers and Marshall Mathers all write terrific poetry, but we think of them as the lead singers for Radiohead and The Killers, or as Eminem.
(I had a horrifying thought while I was writing this: is Lady Gaga a zeitgeist poet? So: Telephone. It’s a dumb little dance song about not wanting to answer texts because she wants to dance instead. But listen to it, the melancholy. Isn’t she essentially saying ‘eat drink and be merry, because that’s all there is? Exhausting as it is, I’m going to dance until I drop, because life is sterile and empty and that’s all I can think to do? Lest we forget, lest we forget indeed.) (I think she’s Silverweed. You know Watership Down? The sick poet, the truthteller, but a prophet/poet of hopelessness, of bleak surrender to inevitable oblivion? Fiver, the true prophet, is the only one who gets Silverweed, and recoils from him in horror.) (Having said that, I’m nuts about Lady Gaga. I think she’s amazing. I can’t get enough of her.)
So. Anyway. Wow. Sorry. I wish I had something more profound to say than: there’s this sub-genre of poetry I just invented with really cool poems that I wish more people would write more of. And I’d write me some good zeitgeisty stuff, but I can’t, I’m not a poet. I just think that we live in a golden age of poetry, which we don’t think of as such because we think of a lot of great poems not as poems but as lyrics, as hip-hop or rock, and also simultaneously poetry’s dying and that’s a shame because it’s awesome. I guess that’s what I’m saying. Just . . . poets get to be prophets sometimes. And it’s worth paying attention when it happens.