A long, long, time ago — just after the Presidential Inauguration last January, Alexandra Petri wrote in her Washington Post blog, a piece generally directed at inaugural poet Richard Blanco, but more specifically aimed at the art form of poetry in general. I had intended to comment on her piece back in January, but I didn’t get to it, and I forgot about it until now. But, since April is National Poetry Month here in the U.S., I thought I would revisit her words and comment on them.
If you want to read Ms. Petri’s blog-post in its entirety, I shall provide a link here. For those of you who do not care for links, I will summarize some of her sentiments. She writes:
“Poetry has gone from being something that you did in order to Write Your Name Large Across the Sky and sound your barbaric yawp and generally Shake Things Up to a very carefully gated medium that requires years of study and apprenticeship in order to produce meticulous, perfect, golden lines that up to ten people will ever voluntarily read.”
While I don’t take issue with some of the points she brings out in her piece, Ms. Petri goes on to ask, “Can a poem still change anything?” To which I would answer that maybe it depends upon your definition of ‘change’. Perhaps poetry is not up to the task of making the wolves lie with the lambs, or encouraging the takers to become givers, or to opening the minds of the intolerant, but perhaps that is too large a task for any art form. Nobody is suggesting that novelists cease to novel, or painters cease to paint because something grandiose may not take place. Of course Ms. Petri isn’t suggesting that poets don’t write poetry either, but she is suggesting that it is no longer relevant.
When I was in the seventh grade, my English teacher assigned a poem to me on a Friday, and tasked me to learn the poem by Monday morning. The poem that I was to learn was Shelley’s 1817 classic sonnet, Ozymandias. It was good training, as it was not to be the last time in my life that I would receive an assignment on Friday for Monday delivery. At the time, however, I had little interest in spending my weekend learning to recite poetry. But I did learn the poem, and I did recite it in front of my English class the next Monday.
In its brevity (14 lines), Ozymandias describes the temporary nature of life in a way that few tomes of doorstop proportion can equal. In this poem, a nameless narrator meets a “traveler from an antique land” who describes visiting what is believed to be the tomb of Rameses II in the Egyptian desert. The traveler ruminates upon an inscription on a statue, left by the once mighty pharaoh, which reads:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
The last three lines of the poem describe the ruins of Ramses’ II’s tomb decaying in the desert – the impenetrable edifice built by the once powerful pharaoh slowly being consumed by the literal and proverbial sands of time. The meaning for us all being that the mighty will one day fall into decay and ruin and we shall all return to the dust of the earth, regardless of our station in life.
I can recite this poem to this day, and I find these words that Shelley penned so long ago both sobering, and in a strange way comforting. So in answer to Ms. Petri’s question, “Can poetry still change anything?” I should answer that in a small way it changed me, and the way I view the world around me
Of course, I realize that Ms. Petri is speaking more about today’s poetry and the state of the art today, and not really about old, long dead poets, and musty old poems committed to memory by seventh graders. I think she is talking about an entirely new breed of poet, and to her credit, some of what she writes about the over intellectualizing of poetry seems to indeed be true.
One of my favorite poets, who has been dead for far fewer years than Shelley, is Charles Bukowski. A one time postal clerk, Bukowski wrote nearly every day of his life, although he did take a decade off from writing, a decade he referred to as a ten year drunk. He died in 1994 at age 73. He wrote primarily about his own tumultuous, hard-bitten life in Los Angeles, a life spent working at mundane jobs, excessive drinking, gambling and womanizing.
So if you aren’t acquainted with Charles Bukowski, here’s a good place to start: “back to the machine gun” (analyze that). You will find that Bukowski did not produce the “meticulous, golden lines” that Alexandra Petri mentioned in her post. You will probably be either repulsed by Bukowski, or you may find yourself wanting more. Should you want more, his books abound, so pick one up – but don’t purchase online, or in a big name book store. I suggest you look for a dog-eared copy in a used book shop – preferably in a run down part of town (don’t go there alone, or at night). There will probably be an all night diner across the street, and a liquor store next door with a Pabst Blue Ribbon sign in the widow. So find your way there and buy a book and if there is any change left from the sale, leave it for the clerk. Then pick up a pint of Gilbey’s gin and take the number 5 bus home and start reading.
Bukowski’s work is not for everyone, but whether you like him or not, he had some very profound things to say about writing in general. This quote from Bukowski should be taped to every writer’s keyboard, or notebook:
“An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.”