If I was a world famous figure, I would put a provision in my will that Maya Angelou be forbidden to write a poem about me when I died, and anybody caught reciting one at my funeral should be pelted with dead guppies and rotten fruit, or at least denied beer at the wake. Can’t we dredge up a different performer to serve as our artistic voice this season? Can’t the Establishment select a new in-house poet to trot out on those solemn occasions when we must take time out from consuming in order to grieve and feel Deep Sentiments?
Whenever politicians and celebrities need a literary prop, they phone up Maya Angelou, just as the networks call up Regis Philbin when they need someone to host a TV special like A White House Christmas: First Families to Remember or the latest installment of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? She lends spurious literary cachet to upscale events, allowing the attendees to feel with-it and cultured as opposed to merely trendy and crass, which is a nice change for them. Whatever merits as an artist she ever possessed long ago evaporated in the warmth and light of elite approval, and now she is as safe for mainstream America as Hallmark Cards, the White House Easter Egg Roll, and gluten free muffins. Thus Maria Shriver could quote her at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gubernatorial inauguration without the slightest fear of offending any of the Republican fund raisers gathered there, and she could share the stage with the Clintons and fit right in.
In the first case, her words were used in a doomed effort to show that not all Republicans are as as philistine as they seem; in the second, she helped a couple of rich white liberals reconnect with poor brown folk before they went over to the White House to impose NAFTA and welfare reform on an unsuspecting nation. In both instances, she and her art, so-called, were nothing but cover for the seedy ambitions of political snakes.
But what of it? So what if a rather mediocre poet has conned our asinine elites into thinking she’s an important artist? It’s a harmless enough charade. It’s not like she’s peddling credit default swaps or pushing for an invasion of Iran. Everybody benefits and no one gets hurt. She provides p.c. window dressing for politicians, and she makes celebrities feel soulful in a way that doesn’t threaten their faith in Scientology or the analects of Deepak Chopra. We peasants are soothed and uplifted, or at least not made to feel uncomfortable: the sentiments in her poetry have become as safe and conventional as Mother’s Day. No big deal here. Just another day in the gaudy cultural life of our big dumb empire. It’s just that somebody should know better.
But not many people do, and for a pretty logical reason. For all intents and purposes, poetry is dead. It’s a moribund art form with little more relevance to modern life than Neolithic cave paintings. During the Iron Age it was a good way to tell tales of gods and heroes, and it continued to have blood, guts, and balls up until the nineteenth century. There were a lot of good poets in the twentieth century, but the medium itself was on fumes. Nowadays it is the lifestyles and/or neuroses of individual poets, rather than the poetry itself, that interests the public. A modern audience could be amused by the antics of Lord Byron or Dylan Thomas, but it would nod off if required to actually read their work. It just wouldn’t “resonate,” as we’ve learned to say.
There are still poetry aficionados, of course, but there are also people who collect electric trains. They are a subculture that stands apart from the current of the times, not as rebels who offer meaningful criticism, but as hobbyists who say nothing of interest outside of their own self-centered claques. Just pretending to be a poet is to announce that you are, artistically speaking, a Luddite. That’s not an indictment of poetry, it’s an observation about the age we live in. Any art that relies on the written word is an archaism now.
Posterity will not look to poems — or novels, for that matter — to learn about us or our aspirations. They will watch television commercials and the Oprah Winfrey Show. Like it or not, that is where you will find the key to who we truly are. E-Trade commercials with the snarky talking baby are a more authentic expression of the American Zeitgeist than a million “spoken word” poetry readings. Watch any beer or fast food commercial on a Sunday afternoon during football season, and the reasons America went mindlessly goose-stepping into Iraq become as explicable as basic math. There is a straight line from Cops and hysterical AMBER alerts to the armored vehicle your police department just bought from the army. Generic poems about hope and faith aren’t so revealing. At most, they’ll be used as forensic evidence to show just what juvenile saps we really were.