Tuesday, June 28, 2005

"I Think Continuously of Those Who Were Truly Great"

I can't stop thinking of e.e. cummings. Lines of his keep banging around in my noggin like marbles inside a plastic pumpkin. Lines like "when god lets my body be" and "all in green went my love riding" and (especially, since the Republicans passed their flag desecration Constitutional amendment last Thursday) "I will not kiss your fucking flag." Could be that the times we live in so closely mirror the times when e.e. cummings came to maturity, before and during World War I, when another set of greedy, self-righteous pricks had a death-grip on America, and e.e. cummings was so good at telling them off.

"What is precious is never to forget." That's not cummings. That's Stephen Spender, the brave Brit who volunteered on the side of the doomed Republic in the Spanish Civil War and who lived to tell the tale. That's Spender's line too that forms the title of this posting. I once rode in the backseat of a car chauffeuring Mr. Spender from Lubbock to Plainview, Texas, because my teacher at the time incorrectly thought I was the student most likely to carry on an intelligent conversation with the Famous Poet. He was wrong. Dead. Wrong. I shrank from that great, tall, impossibly robust man with the posh British accent. I wanted to be invisible. I made of my gangly West Texas farmboy bones the smallest parcel I could in the dusty cushions of that back seat and uttered nary a word for 75 painful miles.

"The names of those who in their lives fought for life
Who wore at their hearts the fire's center.
Born of the sun they traveled a short while towards the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honor."

But O Mr. Spender, you gave me words to light the darkness and to define a bravery I think we may be needing now as much as you needed it in 1936, taking up arms to defend the rights of a poor citizenry against Generalissimo Franco's fascists.

In 1822, Shelley, another fighter against unjust power, called poets "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." That's a grand placard to hang on a bunch of impractical scribblers, now ain't it? But I'm beginning to see his point. Given the actual legislators this country has put in charge of our democratic futures, the poets I studied in my youth return their lines to me in my still-gangly sixth decade, and at this hour in our peculiar history those lines of poetic legislation come as some comfort. Others before us have confronted unreasoning pig-headedness and cruel self-righteousness. And despite the odds, they told the truth, sent forward to us latter-day sinners the bulletins to warm our hearts in adversity, to help us see clearly, to look up and rally together.

I thank god (which is the way cummings spelled His name) for e.e. cummings. And for the Brit Stephen Spender. And for a whole raft of other pains-in-the-ass, true blue, spit-in-your-eye Americans. I will keep you banging around my noggin while El Presidente struts his stuff at Ft. Bragg, all day Tuesday. I may quote poetry to my bean patch, even while the president tells lies to the nation. And beyond that, yes, for as long as it takes.

No comments: