In the preface to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote, "The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetic nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem [...] One sees it must indeed own the riches of the summer and winter, and need never be bankrupt while corn grows from the ground or the orchards drop apples or the bays contain fish or men beget children upon women [...] Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest. Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall."
Boy, was our bard wrong! Though we grow practically nothing but corn now, we are bankrupt, and of all the arts, none is more despised and neglected than poetry, but don't worry, this article is not really about that dessicated corpse, but the climate that has made poetry obsolete, the conditions that are the cause and symptoms of our national nervous breakdown.
Poetry is close reading and attentive listening. It requires silence, reflection, sustained focus and analysis, mental habits that are much atrophied in our culture, and which our young are growing up mostly without. In a society that always hurries, even to nowhere, fast, and values quantity over quality, most this, biggest that, poetry is truly a waste of time. We don't even have the patience to look at each other in the eyes and listen.
I talk to the side of a face, as this face stares at a screen. My voice must often compete with yet another song, replayed for the zillionth time. I shout in fragments, because even three sentences in succession would crash my listener's frayed hard drive, burdened as it is with trillions of greatest hits, sport statistics, Sarah Palin's aphorisms and porn images.
There are books devoted to our mass attention deficit disorder, but it only takes common sense to figure out why we can't think straight or hold ideas that aren't slogans, soundbites or stereotypes. You can't think if you're not trying to do so. You can't think if you'd rather do anything else, or several things simultaneously. Yes, we're distracted and seduced relentlessly, but it's possible to say no to noise and flickering lights. Babysat by television, our kids are growing up fidgety, with flawed memory and retarded language skills, just like, well, their elders. On a recent school visit, I asked a group of sixth graders, "How many of you listen to music as you read?" Two thirds raised their hands. "Next time, just try," I said, "to read without listening to the ipod or stereo, and without having the TV on. You'll comprehend more. I'm not telling you what to do, now," I smiled. "It's just a suggestion. Will you give it a shot?"
"Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun... there are millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand... nor look through the eyes of the dead... nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself."
It's ironic that Whitman, who had such an enormous appetite for direct contact, for breathing flesh, touched or just seen, was also inspired by photography, a brand new invention during his time. In "Pictures," a poem written before Leaves of Grass, Whitman compares the mind to a gallery of photos, and when his masterpiece came out, he explained in an unsigned review, "Its author is Walter Whitman, and the book is a reproduction of the author. His name is not on the frontispiece, but his portrait, half length, is. The contents of the book form a daguerreotype of his inner being [...] "
Well, we've arrived at that hell universe where sexed up reproductions have eclipsed what's real, where we're hypnotized and titillated daily by a bombardment of hallucinations produced by Hollywood, Madison Avenue and Washington DC. It's all P.R., all the time now. Last week, we saw Obama and Sasha bobbing in the Gulf of Mexico. It's curious that only one photo was released. Judging from the light, a shutter speed of 1/200 would suffice, so maybe they were only in the water for one two hundredth of a second, with a nervous Michelle, just outside the frame, beckoning, "Get the hell out of that Corexit stew, honey!!! Quick!"
Looking at that image, I immediately thought of Mao in the Yangtze. At 72-years-old, The Great Helmsman covered nine miles in 65 minutes, according to state propaganda. No one ever said Communists were subtle. When it came to suckering and lulling the masses, however, they always had much to learn from Capitalists, and China, at least, is catching up fast. Don't harangue. Seduce! Don't ban "cultural poison." Facilitate it! It has just been announced that China will allow some web porn, both foreign and domestic. With a billion (hairy) hands newly preoccupied, less energy will be left for griping, that's for sure. It's instructive to remember that a poet, Bei Dao, was at the heart of the Tienanmen protest in 1989. In the new, media-saturated China, this would be highly unlikely.
The propaganda we're fed doesn't have to be as crude as, say, a cheerful Bush feeding turkey to troops, or a young, attractive woman without nose and, "What Happens if We Leave Afghanistan." More insidious is the beamed appearance of normalcy, the goofy jokes, dancing contests and fried chicken ads, etc, that's masking pervasive rot and despair. As more crimes are committed against us and in our names, look for more trivia to drown our exhausted minds.