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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Writing Poetry in a Cynical Age

One day in my graduate creative writing class, a student asked our internationally famous poet-teacher what he thought about "writing for posterity."

Judging from his response, this was a not a good question to ask our normally very generous and very gifted writing professor.

"Poets write for their own times! Let posterity take care of itself!" is as good a paraphrase of his answer as my memory will allow.

Over the ensuing years, from that point in my writing life until now, I have often thought about that moment.

As I look to "our times," I can't help but be stilled by wonder at how cynicism, crassness, mean-spiritedness has replaced--for lack of a better word--the idea of --nobility.

I define "nobility" as the practical application of striving toward something better--a better life, a better culture, a better self, a better sense of what it means to be human.  The idea that--yes, things are not good, not ideal, not "as they should be" but, given all that, we must try. We must endure and then endeavor to march toward our better natures.

Because it is only in the trying--and, yes, in the failings--that we humans make a better race.

Let's not confuse "better" with the knee-jerk, facile, bumper-sticker, philosophical kitsch which would have us believe that "we feel you" and "create a good day" and "we can do better" are the bippity-boppity-bo words that will, instantaneously and without effort,  make everything okay.

On the other end of this magical thinking spectrum is the pervasive cynicism I see politics as well as in "high" and "low" culture." As if simply negating everything and everyone is the answer to how we should live. As if the idea of  "Just tear it down--negate it--and don't-worry-your-pretty-little-head- about-the-hard-work of getting issues solved" is a viable way of being and living.

Or worse, there seems to be a mandate to replace, if you will allow me to paraphrase Mr. Rogers of the famed children's show, "simple and deep" with "complex and superficial."

Contemporary poetry is not immune. This kind of cynicism I find in today's poetry as in today's culture always reminds of the eighth grade boys in my neighborhood who would pack together and--with long drawn out hoots which were always accompanied by distorted faces and a multitude of punches to any and all available arms--would deride anything they didn't understand, anything that went beyond their adolescent needs and wants.

 It wasn't--isn't--cool to be complex. Or subtle. Or nuanced.  Or, heaven-forbid, striving toward some better self and some better world in which self-reflection and self-correction were--are-- a necessary virtue.

And  I'm not talking about the "put on a happy face" kind of writing you might find in greeting cards or repeated on day time talk shows. I'm talking about writing that makes us think and feel and strive  upward....

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