One more time, I’m going to cheat a little by pasting into this space part of an intro I wrote over the weekend for a section of my collected poems. The introductions are getting almost as long as the stuff they’re supposed to explain!
That my introduction to this final section is proving far and away the most difficult to write may, to a cynic, indict the essential fraud of all history: the more distant a sequence of events becomes, the tidier its description grows. An alternative explanation may be that, since this period ends only because it cannot extend beyond the present moment, it has the most artificial and arbitrary of endings—not a true terminus imposed by real change; and yet another perspective might be that I’m becoming more confused as I get older.
For my money, the last explanation is the most valid. I seem to have lived much of my life in reverse, so a curious failure to find the tranquility of acquired wisdom in my silver years fits the puzzle perfectly. If I was more gloomy as a young man, I also dwelt deeper in the isolation of a very concentrated and (I will admit now) comforting gloom. Now that I have found ways to push back against the world somewhat, I feel less exiled and nullified—but I also see the challenges to civilized life growing much more complex (largely because we who face them appear to be growing more simple-minded). I am less disposed now, as well, to withdraw into that old self-imposed exile and more inclined to get impatient or disgusted. I expect to see more effort made—effort to understand, to reevaluate, to prepare for necessary action, to act at the ripe moment—since I myself was able to grind a not-so-bad life out of very unpromising circumstances; yet what I observe, instead, is an escalating flight to “plug-in drugs” and “virtual reality” as well as to the more conventional hallucinogens and “artificial paradises” (in Baudelaire’s phrase) so popular in my youth.
I have a good head-start on being an angry old man. I am not a Luddite; yet I am deeply distressed, not so much that young people don’t know what a Luddite is (I didn’t, either, at their age)—but that they don’t care to find out, will recur to some handheld “device” if forced to find out, and will have forgotten what they found out five minutes later. Hell, the device is still there! “Why don’t you get your own, if you have a question, and leave me alone?”
The profits that the private sector harvests from such high-tech addiction have finally and fully merged with the manipulative designs of the public sector upon e-voters of the future, their I-Brains and I-Tastes determined by the paternalistically “helpful” software of I-nfo and E-ntertainment. Nobody seems to care; everybody seems to be happy. Corporations have more money, politicians have more power, and citizen voter-drones have more leisurely escapism (all the way to the slaughterhouse). I’m sounding now like some Sixties radical—the type whose self-serving antinomian protests I deplored as a young man and even referenced in some of my first poems. Have I again clumsily shifted gears into reverse: am I becoming more “liberal” in my old age, contrary to the cliché? Or has the true basis of liberalitas—the insistence on individual liberty—that was caricatured in Sixties hedonism become the critical issue of our onward-and-upward, “accept digital centralization or die” version of progress?
Within such anguish, George Shirley was born. Under this pseudonym, I composed many of my final poems for Praesidium. The name was drawn from the South Carolinian branch of our family tree. I imagined in George a polite but mildly jaundice-eyed country gentleman who, as a matter of strict principle, hated to offend—but who found a broader body of reverend principles impelling him to mount a resistance against the annihilation of liberal (read “freely speaking and thinking”) society. The lover of the soil and the gentle things she produced had a tincture of the rebel in him, and he wasn’t above sneaking the mare from his weathered barn for a night raid on the depot. As my poetically encrypted attacks under this guise grew more and more narrowly indexed to political trends, in fact, I became more and more puzzled and uneasy. One late edition of the journal quasi-apologized, “If George Shirley’s poetry continues to become more political, it can only be because politics continues to intrude upon our private lives.”
I’m not sure that the prominent appearance of natural images in the midst of so much diatribe is an accident or an oddity. I have always felt a vital need of nature, just as I need oxygen and water. Yet for George (and for me through George), nature isn’t identical with oxygen and water: one doesn’t protest the escalating mechanization of the times, that is, because one’s all-important health may stand in jeopardy. The motive there is not negligible… but the real benefit of nature to life that doesn’t perish (i.e., that doesn’t need oxygen and water) is its purposelessness. The woodpecker I hear outside my window just now could drop dead this instant without disrupting the smooth operation of the cosmos. In that regard, he is like art—like my poetry, I hope: he is marginal, an outlier. As we strive ever more vigorously and effectively to make everything around us contribute to an identified goal or objective (and in what other endeavor do we show any vigor and efficiency at all?), we draw ever closer to fusion with robots. Many of us consciously hail this impending union as Nirvana rather than a marriage made in Hell: that’s how dumb we’ve already become. A few of us “cling to green” (since we’ve destroyed the open-endedness of art, reducing it to an evolutionary history of the oppressed) because something in us persists in crying out for an exit, a window on airy infinity… but our political handlers are quick to exploit that longing. We must vote for them, they warn, if the moon isn’t to fall; and we must contribute more of our squalid salary to their newly formed, state-of-the-art Bureau of Lunar Salvation.
My cousin George fully comprehends what crap this all is. Hence the more he turns his wry smile upon our “saviors”, the more he turns away from any hope offered by this world and heeds the woodpecker. And the woodpecker’s message? I think it’s this: “Live not in life but through life. Seek in everything that you are at the moment—in every circumstance that defines your current parameters—a voice transcending specific need or use. Always seek in what you see more than what’s visible just now.”