There seems to be an anxiety felt by the Baby Boomer generation that the world, when they have gone, will cease to be. It must be a consequence of their belief that the world, before they entered it, didn’t exist. Or, if it did, existed in some corrupt and unhappy form, which thankfully they righted and redeemed. Largely, they achieved this monumental task by virtue of their insights and their actions, all which occurred between the years of 1965-1969. In 1970, Adam and Eve were cast out of paradise and disco was invented. Drugs became dangerous, and anonymous sex with many strangers deadly. It was for these reasons that the Baby Boomers took jobs they didn’t want, stopped smoking pot, moved to the suburbs and toyed with the idea of becoming Scientologists.
Of course, I’m kidding. Sort of.
Obviously, the passage above comes from a long-held resentment of having to live in the shadow of a generation, whose values seem to have created the culture in which I live. Their agendas, for good and for ill, have dominated the world stage for the last forty plus years. They have chosen not only the debates but the language of those debates. And still, just when their influence ought to be retreating, they seem to want a re-dawning. Their insistence, for instance, that sixty is the new forty, or whatever the fuzzy math concludes, suggests a great deal about them, which isn’t flattering. The first and most damaging is they they never want to grow up. This Peter Panism isn’t even denied usually. Rather, it is embraced. After all, who wants to grow crotchety?
But what they call crotchety might also be considered wisdom. And the beginning of wisdom, as Solomon says, is fear of the lord. I have an Emersonian take on this, I think, and think of his Lords of Life. Those principles upon which we rely, whether we like it or not, and which in the end must triumph. In some ways, the BB’s are as much an embodiment of Emersonian principles as any other before or since. The worship of “now,” which is the only eternity any of us will ever know, has been so deeply accepted that it hardly seems worth my while to illustrate the ways in which our culture values the moment. But this cult-like worship of now has led to a kind of apocalyptic resignation. A good friend and teacher once described the two guiding poems of his generation as Arnold’s Dover Beach, on the one hand, and Yeats’ The Second Coming, on the other. The resulting life’s philosophy resembles a logic which goes something like this: a terrible beauty is slouching toward Bethlehem to be born, so let’s do it, baby.
I am generalizing and this means many – I suspect anyone born between the years 1945 and 1960 – will find fault with what I’m saying. I’m certain many educated by the BB’s will also find fault because generalizing is a taboo. We don’t speak in generalizations. Rather, we have been taught to speak in moving anecdotes followed by impressive statistics. The truth seems then beside the point. I guess my argument would be this: one might get as close to the truth by generalizing as one might by the formula cited above. The advantage of generalization is an expedience, which mimics clarity more closely than anecdote or statistics. And it is clarity I am after.
Recently, I read an essay in the NY Times on greatness. David Orr examines the idea of greatness in poetry, especially contemporary American poetry, and suggests that “American poetry may be about to run out of greatness.” The reason I say suggests instead of states is that I sense a kind of irony in his tone, and I hope that, considering the rest of his essay, he both means this and doesn’t. Or that he senses that this is the fear of poets in the poetry world and yet hopes it isn’t true. Perhaps, he is even suggesting that one must redefine greatness in poetry, or that the job of the great poet is to redefine it for us. As, inevitably, great poets do. In fact, it seems to me that this is the indisputable effect of greatness. Before there was that and now there is this.
When one thinks of great poets certain names rise to the surface. Mostly, these names don’t differ that much from poet to poet (or even from non-poet to non-poet). Where they do differ, there is room for debate. But where there is overlap, there is none. I don’t mean greatness is consensus. What I mean is that greatness removes the opportunity for debate about greatness. I suspect that the twentieth century will produce, perhaps, a single great poet. Perhaps it will allow room for two. The two great poets of the nineteenth century are clear to us: Dickinson and Whitman. One might debate which is greater, but not that one is and one isn’t great. The twentieth century is a little harder to be definitive about, but for me two names emerge: Stevens and Ammons.
For us, the mountain any poet must climb is Stevens. One might begin judging Ammons by substituting in all of his mountain poems, of which there are many, Stevens’ name. Whether Ammons traversed that rocky terrain or died along the way remains to be seen. His footprints, however, are there. They are clear imprints in the snow. And how we might know his fate is by taking the pass ourselves or finding our own way. Either we’ll find Ammons’ bones littering the face or, cresting the peak, find another mountain beyond gleaming with snow. Greatness means climbing the mountain and becoming a mountain. Then our shadows might stretch all the way to the sea.
One of the less charming traits implied by my perhaps unfair assessment of the BB’s is that they can’t conceive a greatness beyond their own. The risks they have taken are all the risks there are. And, however well they have prepared the next generation, our generation, we might never do as much as they. They underestimate, and encourage us to doubt, our ripeness. It is we who are now in full flower, and not they. If the world dims now, it dims for them. For us, it is all shine. It is noon. There is no better time to set out. There is no better time to risk than when one’s sight is as large as the sun’s. Let them enjoy their illusions in crepuscularity, while we dawn for ourselves.
To be great is to be misunderstood, Emerson says. If there is to be great poetry for us we must exercise virtues and principles, which have been considered dubious by our teachers. Once their assessments mattered, but now, in this eternity which is ours, they don’t. There is a reason Obama’s rhetoric of hope resounds for so many. He aims for greatness. He desires to be the poem that took the place of a mountain. It is for this reason his challengers, Baby Boomer’s all, underestimated him. It was this underestimation, which we might substitute for Emerson’s “misunderstood.” Still, his greatness isn’t assured. But it is more assured today than it was yesterday. And tomorrow, when he wakes to open his curtain and recognizes his image lighting the grass and all the empty trees, he will have come another step closer. Until we can posses, as poets, a spirit like this, we will start at shadows and cast none of our own.
Great poetry, as I have suggested in other posts, must be a poetry which matches the vitality, the attractiveness and the relentlessness of life. The great poets of the twenty-first century will find exactly the right words to match this world, this now. And it will seem, after all the dust settles, that the words they found were the right ones, the eternal ones. Perhaps, the great poet will come from the established poetry world, and perhaps she is writing her poems in secret to an audience of one. It doesn’t matter. Greatness isn’t necessarily what one aims to do, it is what one does, even as life isn’t what you hope it would be but what it is. A great poetry reconciles us to the fact and becomes a fact itself. The way is fraught with uncertainty and danger. The qualities necessary to meet the challenge have been etched in stone for anyone to read but only the few, the elect to live.