In Verse: Zeitgeist poetry, or something

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.

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16 Responses to In Verse: Zeitgeist poetry, or something

  1. Molly says:

    I remember my poetry epiphany – Leonard Cohen’s "Suzanne" published in my Bedford reader in 11th grade Lit class. It seemed to answer so much for me – the parallels between life, love, and religion. It was an "aha!" moment, and I’ve loved Cohen (and poetry!) ever since.

    One thing I ground into my students was the fact that poetry. does. not. have. to. rhyme. We started the unit with "Theme for English B" and wrote our own "Themes," and the response was amazing. We moved on to Plath, reading "Daddy" and "Lady Lazarus," and the look of shock on their faces was something to be captured – their own epiphanies. I could go on, but I’ll sum it up with this: teenagers are amazing.

    And, yes, Lady Gaga is amazing. My two year old adores her, as do I. On the music note (lol), what about Tupac, and Damien Rice, and Tori Amos?

    I don’t agree with whoever "they" are that claim poetry is dying. Mark Strand, bell hooks, and Billy Collins can take "them" behind a building and slap them, proverbially, with their words.

  2. Th. says:


    I don’t think poetry can be "zeitgeist" poetry merely by capturing a moment in time — it also has to become part of that moment, something widely spread and read and discussed. Otherwise, it’s just another ephemeral and unattached relation to the zeitgeist and not really part of it at all.

  3. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Okay, I’m not a poet either (unless you count drivel–I can do meter and rhyme, but it’s all drivel).

    But I wonder if part of the problem isn’t that our definition of poetry, poets, and poetics isn’t dwindling (or narrowing, or tightening, or however you want to look at it). It seems to me that Aristotle’s definition of poetics was pretty broad, and more connnected to a way of thinking than to an elegance and multiple usage-ness of turns of phrase.

    Anyway, speaking of definitions, if Yeats’ "Second Coming" is zeitgeist-ish, maybe part of what makes it so is how much of his poem is used as titles for other works. I counted four phrases from what you quoted, Eric, that have become titles of one thing or another, and I’m wondering if the generating of titles that lead to stories, or perhaps the distilling of themes that become powerful stories, isn’t part of what makes a poem (or even other types of poetic expressions?) a zeitgeist work.

    A few thoughts, anyway. Thanks for the thought-generating post.

  4. Eric Samuelsen says:

    Wow. Molly, wow. Reading your comment, I looked up Suzanne and listened to it again; it’s been years. And you’re right, it’s wonderful. "And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind, and you know that you can trust her, For she’s touched your perfect body with her mind." Poet as prophet indeed. And for sure Tupac, and for sure Tori Amos: Cornflake Girl is astounding. I’d add Aimee Mann: love Wise Up.
    And now I’ve got to go reread me some bell hooks and some Billy Collins.
    And sure, Kathleen, that’s a measure of zeitgeisty stuff; it resonates all over a culture, and gets reused, titles, thoughts, prayers.

  5. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Interesting piece. Reminding me of my days as a student teacher, 10th grade, rather rough school. I had to teach poetry. Not my thing. Sure not my students’ thing. I asked students to bring in their favorite music, lyrics written out for me, and culled through it to find things that demonstrated the points I had to hit. So we’d look at the music and then to the examples in the textbook. It was a wildly successful unit, btw. Seriously I had gang kids interacting–singing!–with kids they’d have otherwise never treated with anything but disdain. Shy kids performed Karoke solos. Amazing. And the test–which was on the poetry, not the music–was a home run for every dang one of them. In fact the high score went to the gangbanger the room was afraid of. Now I’m in Texas so I got a lot of country music, not only pop or rap. Go figure. I don’t know enough poetry to comment on any that might be zeitgeist, but I definitely think you’ve hit on something when you say our poets are now muscicians–and they most definitely are speaking to our kids.

  6. Moriah Jovan says:

    I think of country music generally as linear storytelling, not poetry.

  7. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Narrative poetry?

  8. Moriah Jovan says:

    Well, you can call it poetry if you want, I guess. For the most part, I don’t.

  9. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Ah, some people don’t consider romance fiction any version of art… Just saying. Play fair. There are some very poetic country lyrics, but not all.

  10. Moriah Jovan says:

    Lisa, I don’t know whom you’re speaking, but since you referenced romance fiction, I assume you’re talking to me? And…"play fair"? I have no idea what you’re trying to convey.

  11. Katya says:

    Moriah – What is the difference between (linear) storytelling and poetry, in your mind?

  12. Moriah Jovan says:

    Oh! Um, well…

    To me, linear storytelling plays like a movie in my head. It’s concrete/solid.

    Poetry flashes brief images, feelings, or thoughts that are more vague at times than others, depending on the poet and form. It’s abstract and ephemeral.

    Now, this might be a function of how I read because I’ve only learned in the last couple of years that there are people who love to read, but who don’t see a movie in their heads (cf. Jonathan).

    Take Shakespeare, for instance. I can’t really process the story with the format, but put it into paragraphs and I’m there with the story.

    But, say, Emily Dickinson:

    A Drop fell on the Apple Tree

    A Drop fell on the Apple Tree -
    Another – on the Roof -
    A Half a Dozen kissed the Eaves -
    And made the Gables laugh -

    A few went out to help the Brook
    That went to help the Sea -
    Myself Conjectured were they Pearls -
    What Necklaces could be -

    The Dust replaced, in Hoisted Roads -
    The Birds jocoser sung -
    The Sunshine threw his Hat away -
    The Bushes – spangles flung -

    The Breezes brought dejected Lutes -
    And bathed them in the Glee -
    The Orient showed a single Flag,
    And signed the fête away -

    That’s a photograph, a moment (if not a second) in time.

    Then there’s this song, "Walkaway Joe," (sung by Trisha Yearwood, written by Vince Melamed and Greg Barnhill (which is the mother of my Dunham series):

    Momma told her baby, girl take it real slow
    Girl told her momma hey I really gotta go
    He’s waitin’ in the car
    Momma said girl you won’t get far
    Thus are the dreams of an average jane
    Ninety miles an hour down a lovers lane
    On a tank of dreams
    Oh if she could’ve only seen
    But fate’s got cards that it don’t want to show
    And that boy’s just

    A walkaway joe
    Born to be a leaver
    Tell you from the word go, destined to deceive her
    He’s a wrong kinda paradise
    She’s gonna know it in a matter of time
    That boy’s just a walkaway joe

    Now just a little while into abilene
    Pulls into a station and he robs it clean
    She’s waitin’ in the car
    Underneath the texaco star
    She only wanted love didn’t bargain for this
    She can’t help but love him for the way he is
    She’s only seventeen
    And there ain’t no reasoning
    So she’ll ride this ride as far as it can go
    Cause that boy’s just

    A walkaway joe
    Born to be a leaver
    Tell you from the word go, destined to deceive her
    He’s a wrong kinda paradise
    She’s gonna know it in a matter of time
    That boy’s just a walkaway joe

    Somewhere in a roadside motel room
    Alone in the silence she wakes up too soon
    And reaches for his arm
    But she’ll just keep reachin’ on
    For the cold hard truth revealed what it had known
    That boy’s just

    A walkaway joe
    Born to be a leaver
    Tell you from the word go, destined to deceive her
    He’s a wrong kinda paradise
    She’s gonna know it in a matter of time
    That boy’s just a walkaway joe

    This is a story, minimalist, but all the more effective for its minimalism. Sure, it rhymes and it’s got form, and it explores concepts (of the walkaway joe, teenage certainty of love, etc), but this is our oral tradition of storytelling.

    I’m sure there’s country music that is pure poetry, but I can’t pull any one song out of my remembery at the moment.

  13. I think Moriah has hit on a key distinction. A lot of what we think of as characteristics of poetry hold true for various types of lyric poetry, but not for narrative poetry. Epic poetry, for example, has poetic values that are largely different from those of lyric poetry, which (a la Frost, Dickinson, Eliot, etc.) focuses on a distilled, crystallized image.

    Does Eric’s notion of zeitgeist poetry inherently require that it be lyric, distilled-imagery poetry? Or can it be storytelling poetry (or verse, as some prefer to call it)?

  14. Katya says:

    Interesting. I’m another one of those people who doesn’t see a "movie" in her head, but I think I get what you’re saying. And I was going to ask about epic poetry, but Jonathan beat me to it. :)

  15. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    I’m a little concerned about us getting into trouble because lyrics are quoted here.

    Lyric copyright owners can be like barracudas on the attack if lyrics are quoted without permission (and usually they require lots of money to give permission).

  16. James says:

    Excellent discussion of my wife’s driving music (Leonard Cohen, Tori Amos, Aimee Mann, and yes, sometimes Dylan).

    Agree with Th’s comment that wide distribution is one of the key issues: now it’s songs, lines in movies, maybe a youtube video, that can reverberate through the culture. The concision of poetry used to give it an edge that it’s maybe lost in terms of the logistics of distribution.

    That said, if I were to pick a recent Zeitgeist line of poetry, it would be one from Hardev Shergill which translates roughly to: "I kissed the world on the cheek, but it wanted my mouth."

    There’s a sort of exhaustion in that line that captures, for me, a collective overwhelmed-ness with the encroachment of the world into the local, whether that’s in the form of environmental degradation, transnational terrorism, pornography, you name it. It’s not Yeats mourning the end of unity: we never experienced that. But we are seeing increasing pressure on the little tiny worlds where postmodernism seemed to say we could make our own meaning.

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