“The spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings…emotions recollected in tranquility.”—Wordsworth.
Quick: Tell me the name of a poet who is (a) not dead and (b) not somebody that some teacher made you read more years ago than you want to remember.
Oh, there are some who come to mind, but it’s more because of their social activism than their poetry, I’d suspect.
But as I have suggested in this space before, that does not mean that poetry is dead. To the contrary, those of us in the Baby Boomer generation—to be kind, those of us north of 60—actually had the benefit of growing up in one of the golden ages (unrecognized as it may be) of poetry and a few of us have even remembered and are wont to quote a lot of it—except that most of us don’t really realize that’s what we are doing.
At least, that’s one of my favored theories, and within a country that appears to be in the process of going flat, slap mad. On this, the Sunday before the Sunday before one of the more significant elections of my lifetime, that innocuous enough theory strikes me as being about as good a thing to expound upon as anything else.
It’s really amazing the number of people, and all kinds of people, at that, who go out of their ways to reference some musical lyric I have quoted over the years in the writing of this newspaper column. My dear friend and one time colleague, the late, great Ben Pryor once observed—not flatteringly—that my columns contained “more damn quotations from rock ’n’ roll songs and dead English poets than any other columnist’s in history.”
As I believe I suggested at the time, there can be truth even in envy.
And besides, as I told him, and as I still maintain, I was being completely consistent.
Poetry, after all, is poetry, regardless of its garb, and it seems to me that if one is going to quote anything at all, it might as well be what (the dead English poet) Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that it was—“the best words in their best order.”
The poets of my generation were the songwriters of my generation.
That is why so much of what the good ones wrote has stayed with so many of us for so long. From our radios and to a lesser degree, our TVs, from our stereos, our poets spoke to us.
Through their words, they helped us first grasp, then often incorporate the ideas, in some cases, the ideals, which helped to define us. In a very real sense, our music, which in a great many examples is to say our poetry, served as some effective, if unappreciated, therapy, aiding us as it did in our generational quest to make some sense of a world that all too often made little of its own.
The more things change, the more they remain the same.
Just think about it for a minute: There is the greatest of them all, Dylan, whose words alone are worthy of an anthology. But there are also, Lennon and McCartney, Henley and Frye, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. There are Simon and Mitchell and Seeger and Mellencamp and Springsteen and John Prine.
And yes, there are many more who have herein gone unmentioned, which I guess goes a ways toward proving the point of this.
Some practically screamed and some almost whispered, but they all spoke to us in their respective ways about things that really mattered.
We might not have understood Vietnam, but “be the first folks on the block to have your boy brought home in a box,” pretty well served to define it.
Kent State may have seemed like some place in another country, but “tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming, we’re finally on our own,” made it seem very near, indeed.
Woodstock? How about, “I dreamed I saw the bomber death planes riding shotgun in the sky, turning into butterflies above our nation?”
Adolescent interpersonal relationships? Leave it to Dylan: “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend. When I was down, you just stood there grinnin.’”
That whole awkward teenage business? Perhaps no one ever expressed it better than Janis Ian: “And those of us with ravaged faces, lacking in the social graces, desperately remained at home, inventing lovers on the phone, who called to say ‘come dance with me’ and muttered vague obscenities. Life isn’t all it seems, at seventeen.”
It wasn’t iambic pentameter that was more likely to come from amps exciting cheering crowds than the quiet studiousness of libraries, but it was poetry nonetheless, and we listened to it and I believe it affected us, shaped us far more than we realized at the time.
Which is, after all, pretty much the way that poetry has always worked.
Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.