Towers of Babel, Woodstock and the Word
by Adam Engel
May 22, 2003
“The plant must spring again from it’s seed, or it will bear no flower – and this is the burthen of the curse of Babel.”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defense of Poetry.”
-- Laura Bush
In the beginning was the Word and it was good but not as good as free trade so they built Twin Towers and that nasty Ossama Bin Gone-So-Long-It-Looks-Like-Lies-To-Me knocked them down and there was no investigation because it was better to be poisoned by the smoke and debris burped from Ground Zero and the toxic babble burbled by leaning (right) towers of Media Babel so we can rest easy in our Xanax Xanadu. Make sense? No? Thank god. I thought for a minute THEY finally took my tongue (and other anatomical parts) as I lay dying. Not quite. Not quite yet, at any rate…
Who said that thing about poetry being irrelevant after Auschwitz and Hiroshima – Adorno, Horkeimer? Some smart talkin’ hot dog from the Frankfurt School. Oh, there was poetry alright. But it was a poetry however, that recognized that it was being written in a post-Auschwitz, post-Hiroshima world. One thinks of Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, John Ashbery, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, and the thousands who came after them, influenced, in one way or another, by their political and aesthetic visions of post-nuclear poetry. Also, rap, country and rock n’roll. Dylan, the Beatles, Bob Marley. Public Enemy. Grandmaster Flash. Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Jill Sobule. Ani DiFranco. Talking Heads. X, etc.
Sure Shelley would be bummed out were he to come back (is he dead? or just hiding out like Jim Morrison?) to find that poets in the 21st century are not “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” but merely unacknowledged, but he might be heartened to know that poets still have the WORD; that poetry is still the mysterious art that can spring from anyone – with or without a PhD – at anytime, whenever there is no “rational explanation” for our human condition of pain, love, hate, sorrow, madness, terror, ecstasy, despair and all the rest, only expression, the word, from the head and heart.
I was up in Woodstock, NY doing poetry readings and promotional stuff about this time of year, May-June, 2001 (I know, I know: the music festival was actually held in Bethel; but the old trust-fund hippies still believed, in 2001, and the vibe was there in Woodstock proper) and the television commercials in the bars I read in hyped Timothy McVeigh’s coming execution with neat-o graphics: McVeigh’s I-Know-Something-You-Don’t-Know face morphing into a Roman frieze; not one but three of those crucifix-shaped lethal injection tables rising flat to vertical, one slightly higher than the other, like the crosses at Calvary. Flashing text. Upbeat music. Gushing commentary by experts (experts in WHAT, pray tell?). True, it wasn’t real exciting TV like WTC, the war against double-secret hidden terrorists in Afghanistan and the war against double-triple super secret Weapons of Mass Destruction and Mass Civilization in Iraq. But still, how could a poet compete?
The Woodstock Poetry Festival, held during three days of clear skies and balmy temperatures during August 23-25, 2001, was a celebration of the WORD. Poets, from the world renowned (Robert Creeley, Robert Bly), to the relatively known, to the unknown open-mike readers, offered words, and audiences from several states of place and mind accepted them. No celebrities (note: world renowned poets are renowned by a coupla thousand people, if they’re lucky; they’re not really celebrities), no special effects, no particular agenda. Poets and listeners. Portraits of minds painted in free-verse, rhyme, sonnets, blues poetry, confessional poetry and all forms in between.
Dithyrambs, rap, and iambic pentameter. Folk tales and personal reminiscences. Each poet's language was his/her DNA, essence, chemistry, or whatever that made him/her unique and worth listening to. The Woodstock Festival was a celebration of the collective as individual. Various voices, rhythms, imageries and styles reinforced the common strain: we exist, we are, we live, love and suffer; most of all, we remember (both the great events and the minutia) and we speak, and these things make poetry great, for it makes us, both poet and listener, great. In retrospect, it was particularly interesting to hear Robert Bly read poems from a forthcoming book styled after a difficult, beautiful form of Islamic poetry. Like he could read THAT in public, in America, or what’s left of it, today.
Two weeks later the words of a pre-Auschwitz/Hiroshima poet reverberated in my head when my father-in-law called to report that he'd just seen a plane smack into the World Trade Center from his office-window at New York University while Il Dubya, surrounded by photogenic tykes, tried to recall the phonetic reading skills they taught him at Yale.
“…things fall apart, the center cannot hold…”
And as the news reports blew by and the dreadful images were played over and over and over and over, it was Yeats again who whose word was the WORD:
“All changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born.”
So much for the three days of “peace, love and poetry” at Woodstock, August 2001.
Yet a new beauty, greater than the Rough Beast, waits to be born, as different from the poetry in Woodstock as Ginsberg, Jello Biafra, and Queen Latifah were to the pre-Auschwitz/Hiroshima world. The strength of poetry is to change with our thinking; for it is our thinking, and our feeling. All the Rough Beast can do is kill us. True, that’s no small thing. But I remember listening to a guy read in a bar in June, 1989, just after the Chinese pulled their Tianneman Square massacre: “They can shoot us/But they can never touch us.” I took that to mean that while soothsaying could get you killed, shit-slinging was a fate worse than death. Shit-slingers are zombies. The walking dead. The New York Times. Skulls and bones. Ari Fleischer and his monitored corps of scribbling, camera clicking ghouls.
Can’t do a damn thing for the WTC victims (victims of WHOM? we do not know, do we?), and verily (there; I said it: VERILY) I doubt my power to effect the machinery set in motion on 9/11 (again, by WHOM?) that is claiming victims in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and will continue to claim victims by the thousands, if not millions, worldwide, for we do not know what “Rough Beast, slouched toward Bethlehem, waits to be born,” primarily because our “(un)elected representatives” won’t tell us, which should raise even the most botoxed eye-brows across this…uh…great land.
I am not powerless however – well, not YET at least -- to write and to read, to speak and to listen. The Woodstock Festival was fun; the words we write/speak/sing today are essential. Essential to give voice to our fear, courage, love, hate, outrage. Our human voice to express our human dignity. To stop, or at least recognize, the gears of the Death Machine grinding life and sanity and sweeping across television screens throughout the land.
Most of us are neither legislators, nor acknowledged. But all of us have language and a voice to mark us as unique, worthwhile beings and recognize others as such. Some of us read and write poetry (and by this I include sincere music lyrics of all kinds, though less and less are sneaking through the corporate media filters). Perhaps it is time for more of us to do one or both. For poetry is as important now as it has ever been. In a world of Big Media, Big Images, Big Terror, our words are all we have to identify ourselves as individuals, and communicate with other individuals, to rip the images from the screens and personalize them, each adding his/her own identity to the symbols and icons that threaten to filch our Being, depersonalize us and hammer our voices into slogans, keep us marching in lock-step. We don't need a Shakespeare, or a Whitman, or a Yeats, no Big Voices, only millions if not billions of little voices, each one singing, in his/her own rhythm, “I am.”
Adam Engel can be reached at email@example.com