Sunday, November 4, 2012

Poetry, Change and the Whole Damn Thing

Having gained an hour’s sleep last night I didn’t quite know what to do with it.  I knew I’d have to give it back one night next April.

So here I am awake in bed. The clock says 6:30 but I know this as a 7:30 sun. I want to get in another hour of quality sleep. But the dawn’s early light got me thinking about our national anthem and how much better Woody Guthrie’s hymn to us all would be rather than this bombastic-drinking song of Francis Scott Key.

I tried reciting those lines to myself and couldn't get past the twilight's last gleaming without bursting into silent song. It all comes down to this: Did you see our flag this morning that was there last evening? Wow! Can you believe it... you know, the one that was lit during the night by rockets and bombs, Is this a great country or what?

It’s all about our flag, that great signifier, which wouldn’t hold still for a minute given our expansionist impulse, adding new stars with rapacity for the next 100 years. After all, it stands for the home of the free and brave….except for those enslaved, indentured servants, Native Americans, and un-enfranchised women.

I have a likeness for signifiers; they are first cousins to metaphors. The anthem is actually about transformation. From, Oh say can you see to Oh say does that… banner still wave.

I’m still in bed semi-sleeping. From there my thoughts go to poetry. How poetry changes nothing, according to W.H. Auden. He was wrong, so say I, to the pillow. What does produce change then: bumper stickers? Uncle Irving? A lightning strike causing a forty-watt bulb to bubble up overhead?

Not in a star-spangled way, poets say what they see. Many of us are poets by just living that sensibility in our dailiness.  It requires us to think symbolically and consciously, I'm thinking, as I slip into unconsciousness. For some folks, flag equals land of the free, home of the brave even when it isn’t true. It’s a worthy aspiration (though not for me) and summons feelings of pride and willingness to lay down their life.

Shakespeare put words on Henry’s tongue sufficient enough to send a boatload of Nigels and Clives over to Agincourt to fertilize their soil and centuries later to plant a generation of them in Flanders field. Maybe it is war that changes nothing, at least nothing much, for the good….except for those good wars which, with a modicum of awareness, may have been prevented before it was too late. By then I was off to sleep having saved mankind from future follies.

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