Born into the wrong civilization
Attend with me a modern poetry reading. The audience is well-versed in literature, its current trends and attendant ills, but without the careworn weight of erudition that makes for a joyless or too-careful listener. Friends have come to hear friends, and life-long readers arrive in a steady flow for the pleasing frisson of hearing an ancient art touched and propounded by its living practitioners. This is no high-school event, where poetry erupts as naturally and plainly as a pimple. This is no mere excess of passion, or blind pursuit of an ideal more sensed than certain. This is a gathering of votaries, long- time acolytes, lovers who have shared years of glances and passion and have retained a complex togetherness in spite of all.
In the temperature-controlled building, a library, five thousand years of literature sit in taut attendance. All has been arranged with energy and ingenious diligence. A table by the door has a beige cash box, and hopeful pyramids of books written by the night’s readers sit quietly stacked there. A local fellow from channel one-hundred and thirty documents the entire affair, archiving the very faintest waves of sound and sight for channel-changing generations yet unborn. Here, if anywhere, the artful origami of the heart might be attempted.
A scribble of hates, and a mashed trash of imprudent, and yet hidden, loves, are in evidence as the speakers proceed. One has serial contempt for her progenitors, snide, sly, and slimy all at once. All the personality of the pieces comes from them, their habits, their wretched, wrenching cowardice as seen through the adult eyes of their too-quiet child. Another speaker confesses an undue love of her vacation time in France. Photos of Matisse’s famous chapel appear and we are whisked away to vestigial references to greatness; not allusions precisely,—a formulaic, rather than formal, fortune-cookie Confucianism.
The recaller of childhood slights contends that the weight of details carries all her story, and not the coalescing consciousness that hones these details home in the repeating breast. She’s angry, impatient with her students, who make a brief appearance in her talk as examples of clueless youth. “They take flight with their ideas…. Oh, it’s enough to make me and Marjorie boil sometimes….” Maggots are the Maginot Line in her example. “Stop there,” she implores her students in her didactic poem, “stop at the erupting, spoiled sack of yams. We do not need to know more.” The audience hums a mobile appreciation—their minds full of the rotten sacks she has, with hard art and suffering effort, placed there.
In such a case, it is as though one is watching the high art of poetry turned into a Seinfeld episode; all the wit and concision of fine comedy displayed with a peacock’s pride, but centered on a vacuity. All the order and greatness of art churned into the claustrophobic chaos of a hurricane. All is agitation without either cause or destination.
Such riled ranting seems to me to be starkly marred by a deeply frivolous approach to reality, a viciously superficial finesse that forgets the poised purpose finesse first flourished to display. The only way such an attitude can manage to excuse the dowdy hours laboriously burned in pursuit of such fine technique and then pissed away on such minor whims, sadly, is not to rear up and embrace some grand passion, some stirring triumph fought for by one drummed into the gutter…. No, that is not the way of such self-convinced trivializers. In such a case as this, where the wallpaper takes supremacy over the wall, the only cure for the imposed claustrophobia of the artist’s perspective is to tear down the edifice itself—each slash of the brush must rip down a wall as well as display an erudite decoration. The harp of discord is sounded in all such efforts, and the horn of war herself is never very far behind this recourse to insult. For how can one sing even of one’s own virtuosity, when pride himself has been assailed as impermissible, when praise is pigeon-holed as a madman’s gambit and not known as the due beautiful things demand?
So seemed the evening to me as I cried in my car at the horror that the best of our efforts had hobbled themselves to here. That this was our articulate pinnacle, and not some wayward way-station on the trail to grace. Had our civilization only heaped itself thus high? A diminished soul aghast in perished light, marking time with sardonic jokes bolstered by biblical texts and a deconstructionist’s exegesis equally? This was not the Dadaist’s protest of a civilization viciously off-track. This was the exquisite dingus itself. This was the fullness of our self-story presented in all the timeless trimmings of an artist’s hardest artifacts.
I grew convinced, as the night fell down on my humming Subaru, that I had been born into the wrong civilization.