EP&M Online Essay

So Much For Truth and Beauty

very short essay by

Arthur Mortensen

Season of mists and yellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With leaves the vines that ‘round the thatch-eaves run,
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage trees,
To fill all fruit with ripeness to the core,
To plump the gourd, swell the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel, to set breeding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees…

Reading Keats, one can’t help but think how nice it would be use language like that, with its graceful sound, its light touch of metaphor, its metrical and rhyming intricacies, and with a sensibility that suggests the writer not only enjoyed his subject but was able to present his view as a polished work of art.  Of course, hardly anyone does that today.  It just isn’t done.  When we write a poem about such a subject, we must then take it out and throw it in the dog shit left carelessly in the street, rough it up a bit, and expose it to reality.  What's real here?

Though Keats’s nature, like Shakespeare’s, was the English garden, and cultivated as much by human beings as by evolution, hardly anyone thinks of gardens or nature in those terms today.  Nature today is a victim, as are so many groups and individuals.  Everybody knows that.   And such language would be considered naïve at best, an exercise in preciousness, and politically null.  If you expect a contract in today's game, better stop acting like a free agent and say something like this:

Season of smog and force-fed fruitfulness,
Jack-booted brute with a fluorescent grow lamp,
Conspiring with it to overload the trees
And strangle vines that wrap intruding houses,
With apples picked too soon and dyed,
Until the fruit is rotten to the core,
Exploiting Mexicans until they swell
With imperialism's sick kernel, breeding more,
And still more, later corpses for the flies...

Hey, that's modern.  It sounds just like real life, yes?   Just like a discussion at Starbucks over a syrupy latte, yes?  Or, it sounds as real as a report on  NPR, which we might listen to while sitting in an urban apartment in south Brooklyn, looking at a landscape made dismal by windows we haven't cleaned in two years, yes?  Or is it borrowed (with humility of course) from the West Sider's newspaper of record, a front page report of the ghastly scandal of orchards providing hundreds of millions of Americans with apples that aren't quite perfect, not quite as good as French produce, and with -- gasp -- labor imported from Mexico (as opposed to Algeria or Albania)?  My God, have another latte before it's too late.

It doesn't really matter what it seems like.  We all know that.  Seeming is debatable, a subject for theorists.  The real issue is how it seems to be a sort of poem. After all, us dumb poets are just the humble workers doing theory's proofs, are we not?  And how well have we succeeded here?  The broken meter and lack of any other distinguishing "poetic" qualities would probably make it a contender at a contest.  And it's politically oriented in the right direction -- or perhaps one should say the left direction.   And it has that special panache of modernity, that quality of  "saw it on CNN,  heard it on NPR, read it in the Times," the ultimate in politically vetted second-hand experience, sort of like a white teenager from Scarsdale who writes with conviction about being a black female rape victim in 1956 in Johannesburg, or a Marxist-Leninist professor at Yale who finds no contradiction in maintaining a million dollar stock portfolio or taking trips to China with money from his father's trust.  

Isn't that what we're all working toward? 

I hope not.

                                  Arthur Mortensen