of Babel, Woodstock and the Word
“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
-- Laura Bush
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…
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
fall apart, the center cannot hold…”
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:
changed, changed utterly: a terrible beauty is born.”
much for the three days of “peace, love and poetry” at Woodstock, August 2001.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org