March 11, 2011
by Aaron Belz
(This is the third installment in an irregular series on
poetry and politics.)
I love poetry. I shiver reading lines like these from T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land (1922): “‘You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; / ‘They called me the hyacinth girl.’ / —Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden, / Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / Speak…” Or these, from William Wordsworth: “In thy voice I catch / The language of my former heart, and read / My former pleasures in the shooting lights / Of thy wild eyes.”
I love poetry because it is immediate, sensory, and summons some of my most difficult and beautiful memories—often resulting in a desire to perambulate through late afternoon side-streets, enter tiny shops and see what they have for sale. Or it is philosophical, mind-bending, hare-brained, maddening in a most satisfactory way. Merging words and music, poetry leaves thought-gaps finer and more provocative than any other form of communication.
And yet I know that poetry is seen as trite nowadays, consigned to Xanga blogs full of teen angst, dusty library books, or coffee shops populated by world-weary bohemians in berets, like Mike Myers at the beginning of So I Married an Axe Murderer sing-talking a break-up poem that begins, “Woman. / Woe, man!”
For the online generation, poetry is associated with social awkwardness and cultural irrelevance. It’s the most esoteric literary genre with the steepest learning curve, and it’s been the first to go. Most high school English classrooms have abandoned poetry memorization (once a staple), and the likelihood of an 18-24 year old reading a poem for pleasure is decreasing year by year, writes Mark Bauerlein in The Dumbest Generation (2008).
Yet I’m certain that my father, who during his formative years held no greater desire than to become a politician (the President, even), has lamented my generation just as much as I lament my children’s generation. Although I was a Cub Scout, a Little Leaguer, a YMCA member, and although I pledged allegiance at the start of each school day, I entered adulthood cynical about politics.
Recently I’ve begun to examine that cynicism, because although it’s been lifted to some extent intellectually, my heart isn’t yet interested in politics. I’ve begun to catalog everything I associate with the word politics. One of my first memories is of my mom asking me who I would vote for, Reagan or Carter. This was during the summer of 1980, when I was eight. I answered, “Jimmy Carter. He’s the handsomest.” Mom told me that was a bad reason for choosing a candidate.
At the same time there was the Iran Hostage Crisis. When I was nine there was an assassination attempt on Reagan, and I was called in from the back yard to watch the breaking news on TV. The name John Hinckley, Jr., became notorious. But this was so soon after the TV show Dallas’s famous catchphrase “Who shot J.R.?” that the memories merge. And a year later an English punk band called The Clash released a song called “Red Angel Dragnet” that repeated the phrase, “Who shot, who shot, / Who got shot tonight?”
Come to think of it, my experience of politics has been so interwoven with my experience of popular culture that it has merged into the same memory-field. Most of what has counted as politics has been contained in sound bites (“Read my lips”), televised smear campaigns (especially those produced by local politicians), budget disagreements, and sex scandals. I don’t remember Watergate. Still, my conception of American politics is full of covert arms deals and Monica Lewinskys—just as many young people’s impression of poetry is full of beret-wearing beatniks ranting unintelligibly in smoky night clubs.
No doubt poetry and politics are as worthy of our earnest attention today as they were of Shakespeare’s attention in Elizabethan England. But can we overcome our dueling cynicisms? I’m tempted to say yes we can.