It’s the images of a frying egg which haunt me, I think, and make my responses to his question habitual. “No,” I respond again. This is probably the fifth time he’s asked me to get high with him. Something about new levels of consciousness. I tell him my levels of consciousness are just fine: my mother always said to be happy with what you’ve got. But I eye the joint with a vague enchantment; beyond the wary warnings of scalding oil and frying pans, drugs carry a certain frankness, an enduringly poetic promise. In the stories we tell, in the music we hear, in cinema and in the day-to-day, the line between the mundane and the poetic is often…a line. But the ephemeral nature of the drugged poetic moment – and the price it exacts – shows poignantly our search for poetry in its most naked and persistent form.
Poetry goes beyond metered rhymes or disjunctive syntax. Rather than a craft, poetry is a force – and it is a force which envelops and defines our lives more than we realize. Culture is derived from poetry, and even sanctioned by it: it is culture’s highpoint and one of its ultimate goals. It isn’t a stretch to say that poetry decides what is cool and what is not, that poetry ordains what is acceptable, even if at an unconscious level. Poetry is the man-made ideal. Traditionally, it was the language through which we addressed God and was thus the highest form of language we possessed. Yet as it evolved, poetry shifted from a way in which to address the ideal to a divine ideal in its own right. It is through poetry that we see countless men and women seeking to defeat mortality; it is in poetry that we enshrine such high human ideals as love and justice and mercy.
Poetry is what wins elections and what sells tickets. It is the elevation of language to its highest point, to the point where it is worthy of God Himself. As a force it goes further, becoming the attempt by man to model a human-crafted God. The inability to achieve this elevation thoroughly is what keeps poetry on a pedestal – and what stops believers from becoming deities.
In theory, there are those among us who claim, by their own lives and by standards we have set, to embody poetry and thus to be exemplars of the human ideal. We meet them with both fascination and effrontery. Models like Kate Moss who prance through glamorous lives of modeling and drugs and rock-star boyfriends and British accents, politicians like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, the privileged sons and daughters of the New England elite – our hungry captivation is a confusing mix of praise and plunder, and rightfully so. In a society of supposed equals, the rise of gods should give us pause. But the respect fades and the hush quiets, and we are left with a class of people who claim to be, and by all rights of the paradigm are, superior. It is not only bruised ego and egalitarian notions that urge us to tear these people down and return them to the realm of the mundane, it is a solemn duty to protect the nature of the poetic. At their heart, our ideals must be unachievable, because they are modeled after an untouchable God. Yet this is the failure of poetry, for it is an ideal so deeply achievable as to be laughable in its attempts at “unattainability”.
Tabloid culture seeks to remind would-be gods of their mundanity, and in so doing, return them to their status as mere mortals. Yet while we shout at the actress whom we’ve just caught picking her nose, “We have caught you in a thoroughly human moment! You are not thoroughly poetic! Your are not the ideal!,” still poetry is in its essence saying, “I am the mundane, I am the fantastic, I am everything – I am human.” It is a testament to man’s deeply egotistical nature that poetry as an overarching force is eternally expanding as it absorbs every quality, down to the mundanities, of human life. We see this continually.
In television we tout girls-next-door like Joey on Dawson’s Creek and nerds like Seth Cohen as much as we admire the hunk: the Robert Redford and the Denzel. Poetry as the literary form has modernized to the point that rhyme and scheme are no longer necessary; Shakespeare’s sonnets are no more poignant than Pablo Neruda’s contemplations on a chair. As the ordinary and mundane are absorbed by the poetic on a larger scheme, the human fight to preserve poetry as an ideal seems futile; at its base poetry is inconsistent with our notions of “the ideal”.
In Micah, Christians are told to walk humbly with their God, and in a world where poetry is the golden cow, we are advised to do the same. It is only in death that we can achieve the status of poetry, and the respect paid the dead, even if they weren’t much above ground, confirms this. We glorify and idealize those who have died, from soldiers, to presidents, to actresses and athletes and even to our relatives, our friends, to that kid you talked to once on your train ride home. But if poetry is achievable while we are living, there seems to be a fundamental disconnect. How can we be the gods towards whom we aspire? This may be the introspection which poetry inspires in us. Such contemplation may result in an understanding that to be thoroughly poetic is to find the divinity within oneself. In a Christian tradition which calls us to act in the image of Jesus, poetry may be the most literal answer to this call, asking us to comprehend the possibility of being both fully Man and fully divine.
This brings us to an important question: Is it ethical to fashion ourselves a system where we are modern-day Messiahs? For some the answer may be no. They may see in the drugged out scramblings towards poetry at any cost a concrete lesson: You may think you can fly when you are tripping balls, but take a leap and the concrete below will reintroduce you to your humanity.
Ironically it is poetic justice which disproves the poetic paradigm. Maybe it is a self-imposed ethic which impedes us from being thoroughly poetic. But it may be that in a tabloid world of fleeting highs and frying eggs, we may simply have lost sight of what poetry means. In Going After Cacciato, one of Tim O’Brien’s characters implores us: “Having dreamed a marvelous dream, I urge you to step boldly into it.” It is a question of bravery rather than one of ethics. Like O’Brien’s character, I have a nagging suspicion that these days we just lack the courage (and egotism) to live poetically.