Embracing poetry’s power to illuminate a dim destiny.
Although we struggle to find common ground sometimes, my son and I share one intellectual resignation: that our civilization is near collapse. This grim awareness tends to paralyze us in some ways. But, as a writer, as a moral being in the industrialized world, I must offer my cry to the world of the future.
We can learn. We can start again.
Wipe away all the conditions for the world we live in now, with its material-grasping, gotcha-fame-inspired rule by emotions and live-with-no-fear-for-tomorrow ethics, and we can still find gems of our productive humanity, the gleaming transcendence of mind revealed by lofty ideals and unlimited imagination.
My son gives little credit to anyone saying or writing anything in the first years of the 19th century in England. Dead white men are the scourge of all modern thinking. We live in a postmodern age. Only what people say now has any bearing. Voices from the past offer nothing.
I can’t agree when I know that William Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads is there to remind us of everything that matters in a productive, happy life. The backstory is that Wordsworth, along with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, first published Lyrical Ballads as a book of poetry in 1789.
The book became a success, and when a new edition was prepared in 1800, Wordsworth wrote a preface that begins with the suggestion of what they had aimed for when they wrote it all those years before:
“It was published, as an experiment which, I hoped, might be of some use to ascertain, how far, by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation, that sort of pleasure and that quantity of pleasure may be imparted, which a Poet may rationally endeavour to impart.”
He and Coleridge had tried to see how much of one person’s pleasure they could convey to another person, using “the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation.” Well, who doesn’t love “a state of vivid sensation”?
Here, the writer is telling the reader, right off the bat, his intention to create language to carry the effect of “vivid sensation.” The poets hypothesized if they could do it, then “a class of Poetry would be produced, well adapted to interest mankind permanently, and not unimportant in the multiplicity and in the quality of its moral relations.”
He’s almost saying that it was a scientific investigation; they had a rational argument to make. They wanted to show a new way of thinking and acting about “moral relations,” and that this argument for a new way was based on the reception the first editions of the book had made:
“The result has differed from my expectation in this only, that I have pleased a greater number, than I ventured to hope I should please.”
Because they had tapped into some eternal truths with their poetry, his publishers “have advised me to prefix a systematic defence of the theory.” What has long been referred to as the Enlightenment had revealed humanity in new relations to its natural (but also social, political, economic, etc.) environment.
Technology was developed to answer some of the questions we had about the malleability of the earth to human manipulation. And that which we refer to as the Romantic era was that new way of thinking and acting. Wordsworth, in his preface, essentially defines what we mean when we say “Romantic.”
He doesn’t want to. He says explaining his system is arduous and fraught and would take far more space than the poems themselves. He says he wouldn’t want to “be suspected of having been principally influenced by the selfish and foolish hope of reasoning [the reader] into an approbation of these particular Poems.” He tells the reader that he has never wanted to be the kind of poet who “will gratify certain known habits of [literary] association.”
I take this to be the essence of the punk ethos, as well. Nobody can do it better than you. And I sense the best of Michel Foucault, too: One person, the single individual, has power in this society. They just have to know how to exercise it. Wordsworth demonstrated one way, by stripping linguistic ornamentation away from sensual experience and showing people what a real person experiences.
This knowledge will, I can only hope, be valuable when those inevitable changes come: the flooding, the fires and droughts, the population shifts, the failure of political systems, the guns. My father-in-law says wealth is a claim on the resources of the future. But there is good reason to believe that “money in the bank” will be no money at all. And we’ll have to start again.
That is where poetry will resurface in all its entertaining and educational glory. When we sit uneasily around a chillbound hearth, unsatisfied and hungry, worried for tomorrow. When we remember this amazing civilization that we helped to kill.
William Wordsworth will come again. Poetry will serve its purpose.
Y.S. Fing is changing right before your eyes.