Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Dragon and the Bomb

Today's Literary Quote the Day at iGoogle is from W. H. Auden: "A poet can write about a man slaying a dragon, but not about a man pushing a button that releases a bomb."

Boy, I hate to disagree with a genius, but......

Seems to me that a more accurate (though admittedly less pithy) thought would be "It's easier for a poet to write a good poem about a man slaying a dragon than a good poem about a man pushing a button that releases a bomb." And stated this way, the justification is simple: distance.

It's easier (for most) to attain emotional distance from the romantic medieval fiction than from the difficult modern fact. And because of that, the bomber poems can fall much more easily into triteness or worse: political prose attempting to hide in a poem. For many of us who call ourselves "poets", attention to craft does down when we have "something important" to say. Billy Collins once noted that his poetry improved when he "realized he had nothing to say", his point being that many grand subjects had been written about before, often by the literary giants who preceded us, and to write something meaningful on those subjects meant to exceed their greatness.

Of course, the problem with many of us who all ourselves "poets" is a deplorable interest in our own history, a lack of awareness of those greats and an accompanying inflated sense of our own efforts. But that's another post.

What this means to me is that if you can find a way into the bombardier's seat that isn't a simplistic description of the ensuing horror or the pat discussion of conflict in his year, you can write that poem about the man dropping a bomb. If you can take what's going on in that instant and apply the filter of form or language to open it up to different interpretations, that subject should be wide open to you. It's just much harder to do it well.

It's this kind of logic that causes me to gravitate to my pet subjects, areas which for one reason or another are less crowded or lend themselves to reinterpretation or repurposing in verse.

Of course, this doesn't even begin to address the subject of the respective target audiences in Auden's original quote and the implications understanding them might have for the poem. Who do you think would be more open, less critical: dragonstory fans or devotees of the military and political?

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