Like everyone I have opinions. I think Beethoven’s violin concerto is the most beautiful musical composition ever written. I believe bubble gum is disgusting. My point is that opinions are always matters of taste until they’re informed by nuance and scruple. I can change my mind about Beethoven’s concerto though probably not about the gum.
We grow out of our first tastes if we’re lucky. “Lucky” means we’re capable of growing which means we become capable of seeing complexity. We turn into adults. I used to like a certain rock and roll band. Now when I hear them I cringe. What happened? My world got bigger. Miles Davis took the place of Frank Zappa. The more intricate your self awareness the more so your taste.
Years ago the Jungian psychoanalyst Marie Louise Von Franz wrote a terrific book about men in modern societies who fail to become adults. She called them eternal boys. They are everywhere. These men are marked by an inability to form lasting relationships with adults, tend to jump from job to job and are disposed to leave town abruptly if life gets too serious. They crave recognition for their talents but hate responsibility. Here’s an interesting quote: “The one thing dreaded throughout by such a type of man is to be bound to anything whatever. There is a terrific fear of being the singular human being that one is. There is always the fear of being caught in a situation from which it may be impossible to slip out again. Every just-so situation is hell.”
Just so situations are of course the primary ingredient in growth. The eternal boy does not want to grow up and becomes angry when forced to deal with adult matters. It’s the girl friend’s fault he can’t manage his business; it’s the people around him who are the source of his essential problems.
You’ve lived through adolescence and you know the type. If you work in any kind of office setting you know the type. The current president of the United States exhibits eternal boy child characteristics. The eternal boy child wants praise but really hopes to avoid responsibility. Now as we face a critical shortage of medical supplies and equipment Trump refuses to lead. Boys can’t do it. In Roman times the generals put the boys in front so they’d die first and they were called the infantry.
There are eternal girl children too. Toxic ingrown adolescence is no longer just for boys. American entertainment knows this and panders to it. All pop music and Hollywood culture is designed for people stuck in adolescence.
When you watch Donald Trump’s fatuous and self-aggrandizing press conferences notice Dr. Anthony Fauci. He’s the adult. Trump is the eternal angry boy who loves the limelight but resents his duty.
–Luigi and Turner
The darker “bay” chestnut
With the fawn nose
That he is, ears pinned
He says it’s time to eat.
Funny how his eyes betray him
Being pools of black kindness.
Half draft, half Welsh—
Pony in a big frame,
Rust on ice for a coat
With the longest mane
You’ll ever see.
He’s Dylan Thomas alright:
Though lovers be lost love shall not.
For some reason the Gods gave me bad eyes.
Green scarf my first toy, a bandage,
But they weren’t done, I got an orphan’s share
Of joy, madcap blues, blind abacus
Until you think to say “whatever ”
Feigning indifference til silence comes
Like a wounded bird.
I have bad bones
And wave a red candle.
Climbing the twisted stairs
Of James Tate’s cemetery willow.
Sadness is just the rules of a game
No sharp foundling plays.
—for D.J. Savarese
What is helpful? Dark times call for serviceable imago—no Disney mouse, no reiteration of that oldest American thing, Puritan optimism, the “city on a hill.” Better to say we’re the help we need. Better to say Donald Trump isn’t one of us. “Life is unfair,” he said when asked why athletes are being tested for Coronavirus while ordinary Americans are not. If the point of democratic governance is lost on him we should say as Governor Cuomo of New York is now proposing, “we must be the help.” When the presidency is held hostage by a grifting conspiracy theorist and racist who doesn’t want government to work, indeed thinks a functioning government will hurt him, well, we’ve got some reimagining to do.
Forgive me my rampant tone. My grandfather was a Finnish Lutheran preacher and I fear I’ve inherited his moralist’s stole. I try to take it off most days. When I’m forced to show it I think it’s best to know why. “You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say” Luther wrote. I’m owning what I do not say. This should be done by all. One thing I do not say is I believe life is craftsmanship. Luther again: “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” (Luther was making fun of the Pope’s shoes but he too was a fallen man.) I have no idea why God should be interested in good craftsmanship, and have no interest in ideas of universal design, but let’s imagine every life is the raw material of what Auden called “the cave of making” and yes this leads me back to democracy for the aim of the democratic nation state is to provide the means to pursue happiness which I’m calling craftsmanship. When Trump says life is unfair during a pandemic he’s saying democracy is of no interest to him. He’s saying you have no right to pursue your life. And yes, I’ll dare to say it, he’s being un-Christian. The latter is not news.
John Locke was the ghost behind Jefferson: “Being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
John Locke: “Personal Identity depends on Consciousness not on Substance.”
Being an idea, democratic government is hard to defend in a nation devoted to commodity fetishism. Every run on toilet paper reminds me of this fact. Without consciousness, no crafted lives. Without craft no freedom. And that’s when you get a tricked out shill for oligarchy telling you life is unfair.
The Novel Coronavirus differs from the Poetry Coronavirus since where the latter is concerned its victims always knew they’d get it. If this isn’t precisely funny it’s nevertheless true. Poets in every age have believed the world is ending which is why Shelley’s famous dictum that poets are the legislators of mankind is both terrifying and piffle.
I’ve always preferred poets who don’t sell tonic. You’ll rightly ask “who cares what I think?” As a poet I’ve no idea who might give a damn about what I say. But I’m not selling end times or elixirs.
Nor am I complaining online about canceled readings. If I see one more Twitter or Facebook post about poetry events being canceled and by gosh what a shame, I was so ready to read from my new slim volume of verse, etc., I will probably start to accost said poets who seem to have no grander concerns.
Most of the legislators of mankind are the same folks you meet at academic poetry conferences, every one of them dressed to convey intense relevance and marketability, the kind of people who would step on your hands to get ahead of you for a job or fellowship.
I once tripped on a carpet at a famous writing conference and fell down. My guide dog stood beside me. As I struggled to get back on my feet people actually walked over me. They were rushing to a panel on poetry and empathy.
There are no end times. There’s only community. How we care for it is the mark of our legislation.