A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature. Over 15,000 daily subscribers. Over 6,000 archived posts.
Thus spoke the high-modernist architect Mies van der Rohe in the middle of the twentieth century. Nothing since then has refuted his remark. If anything, a good deal more fuel has been thrown onto the techno-fire. Mies spoke before the advent of computers, the Internet, drones, robotics, cloning and whatever else you might add to the list. As a glass-and-steel aesthete, Mies had no problems with that fate. After all, the very word “fate” took everyone off the hook. For all our advanced machines, we might as well have been ancient people heeding omens and keeping a wary eye out for the various gods.
Mies, who before he left Germany for the States had signed a proclamation in support of Hitler, was good at shrugging his adaptable shoulders, though the notion of modernism as “degenerate” must have pained a man so taken with the purity of minimalism. “Fate” came easily off his tongue. Human history was small potatoes beside the ongoing march of human invention. Like Corbusier, Mies designed buildings that weren’t so much for people as for devotees of an unsparing vision. If water puddled at the base of an outdoor staircase or all that glass made a space too hot, that was beside the point.
What is that “fate?’ Many futurists have made many predictions, though there is nothing quite so out-dated as an old futurist. Many enthusiasts are drooling at this very moment at the prospect of larger and larger amounts of virtual reality. The prevalent viewpoint, abetted by the forces of capital, would seem to be “right on.” Anyone who questions this march of the machines is promptly labeled a “Luddite.” As someone who lived off the grid for over twenty years, split many cords of wood by hand and hauled many buckets of water, I am acquainted with that epithet. Simple living is, in the light of that word, an irrelevance, a self-conscious indulgence, a ploy to avoid to reality, a flight into nostalgia. More than once when I told someone how I lived, the person became perturbed as in, “Who do you think you are?” Actually, I didn’t have any thoughts about who I was. I was busy keeping warm and hoeing the garden.
Given what human beings have done with some of their inventions and discoveries—atom bombs, Zyklon B, Thalidomide, DDT, napalm—a person might not be quite as calm as Mies. A person might be worried and wonder what to do with this “fate.” Was it immutable? Since it was of human device it couldn’t be, could it? Humans are mutable, to put it mildly. Was there some kind of karmic lock-step going on, some idolatry encoded in our genes? These seem like fair but fruitless questions. The larger matter would be how technology came to seem life itself. How do we put technology in its place as a contrivance that is inferior to the earth that sustains life and to the emotions—love, compassion, caring—that make life worth living? Has our largest creation over modern times been an emptiness that technology seemingly fills? Must there be so much knowledge and so little wisdom? Is that “our fate?”
Someone might stop me at this point and note that I am a poet, meaning what the hell do I know? I might say that poetry is a long-standing endeavor and someone might answer me with “So is war.” Fair enough but poetry is the attempt to see into the center of what the Taoists called the Ten Thousand Things. There is, of course, no one center. Everything exists in human time, mutable and circumstantial yet tinged with the immutable and not-circumstantial, the depths of being that call to us on a starry night or a walk by the seaside or any human gesture—a wave of a hand. Poetry’s enterprise is inherently humbling but that is part of the insight that poetry can grant. The impulse to create a poem is chancy and mysterious. Even when one has a task—an epithalamium or threnody, to use two old words—where one begins is fortuitous.
Technology bequeaths us control. I strike a match on a windy day and it may go out. I move the switch to turn on the dining room lights and there they are. The more technology we have, the more we need to control and the more we feel we are in control. For some, even death comes as a surprise. This is in contradistinction to poetry which is about surrender, receptivity and letting go. The assertions of the will are useless. Poetry has to make contact with some mystery for there to be something more than an anecdote or remembrance. Technology models how things work but for poetry, although there can be much artfulness, there is no such work, no such mechanics. Poetry is attuned to the vagaries of play, hence its ties to childhood and the unrestrained imagination that goes with childhood. Or should I write, “went with childhood?”
Modern society, devoted as it is to technology, presents a sadly unbalanced picture. Since that imbalance is taken as “the way things are,” not much is said about it. Beyond “more” there seems little else to be said. Spirituality drifts around the fringes, vaguely defined if sometimes ardently felt. Organized religion is exactly that—organized in a mapped-out, dues-paying way and often eager to be technology’s accomplice in the name of being au courant. The humanities may be evoked as a genteel sop, the kindness of the non-metallic, a symbol of Something Somehow Important. As knowledge corporations, the universities have not had much concern as they steadily whittle the humanities. The cell phone in each student’s hand is—to use an expression—where it’s at.
If we ask how this imbalance is felt, the answer is that—by and large, amid what a poet once called the “accelerated grimace,” the insensate busyness and the sheer noise—it isn’t felt. The more novelty the better, the more breakthroughs the better, the more capacities, channels and capabilities the better. Everyone is tethered to a world “on screech,” as my old Maine neighbor used to put it. But of course it is felt: in despair, anxiety, desolation, addiction, violence, suicide, abuse, self-harm, mania, to say nothing of free-floating anger, fear and loathing. Am I blaming these debilities on technology? No. Am I blaming them on the imbalance created by too much of the putative control fostered by technology and not enough poetry and what poetry stands for? Absolutely.
Education in the sense of what the society deems important to pass on to its young is at the heart of this matter. After the famous basics have been taught—what then? Is there a fund of lore or is there merely a potpourri of vocational, economic and national pressures and trends that shape each educational agenda. Although an occasional amount of well-meaning talk about the “whole child” pops up, the notion of a human being needing to be something more than an information repository, to be someone in need of an ever-evolving sense of becoming more alert, aware and trustworthy, remains evasive. Some of that sense asks for moral education and some for physical education but some asks for opportunities to be intuitive, to face a situation much as one faces a poem as in: what do we have here? The uncertainty that goes with such an endeavor, the lack of any definitive answer or meaning is a great teacher, as great a teacher as forging and testing a scientific hypothesis. Lest the reader feel I want to scant science, I’d point out how the earth is a big poem, full of harmonies and infinite mysteries; how there is nothing forbiddingly mystic about the beautiful complexity of land, water and sky. As E. O. Wilson eloquently stated the case, we barely know about a fraction of the life forms on this planet, life forms that are disappearing before our distracted eyes. Busy as were attending to ourselves and noticing other humans, we tend to be, as my son Owen Wormser likes to put it, “ecological illiterates.” Apparently earth-lore doesn’t matter much more than poetry matters.
In face of the standard charge that poetry is impractical, I’d say the opposite: nothing could be more practical than seeking this balance. The havoc that goes with a laissez-faire, take-care-of-your-inner-life-yourself-kid approach grows more extreme each day. Poetry doesn’t tell people what to feel; it does tell them they can feel and can articulate those feelings—an important part of being human that is routinely denied children and young people. As it stands now, children and young people are more or less turned over to the forces of commerce and technology as if those forces held all the answers about how to live, as if the earth were strangely immaterial, as if the growth of sensibility in a person were nothing more than a series of consumer decisions, as if Mies had pronounced the final word on the human race. How strange this is in a world that no longer believes in fate, that trumpets over and over the array of choices, ideologies and possibilities.
It may be that human life as we know it is never more than an ode to expediency, which is to say whatever the powers-that-be decide is expedient—inquisitions over tolerance or suburbs over cities, to cite two. Such a view is customarily dismissed as pessimistic. After all, we can always hope. Waving a flag with “Poetry” on it may seem to be nothing so much as preposterous or, even worse, romantic, a very marginal palliative, a keepsake from Utopia. Grow up, man up, get real, buckle down, face the facts: the phrases fill in a lifetime like so much verbal cement. Meanwhile, the shootings go on, one murderous scream after another, a long montage of gruesome scenes and grieving mourners, the price no doubt of a fabled freedom that may seem, in whatever hindsight is available, to have been little more than indifference to doors that weren’t considered to be worth opening.
Copyright 2022 Baron Wormser
Baron Wormser’s many books include The Road Washes out in Spring: A Poet’s Memoir of Living Off the Grid (University Press of New England, 2012).