Poetry in a Nuclear Age

The following is the beginning of an essay written today that will eventually be included in my forthcoming collection of essays, Ranting the Truth, to be published later this year.

If one of the main poetic themes is the juxtaposition of evanescence and eternality, then we must recognize how quickly the one vanishes, to be swallowed up by the other.

All things pass, and most of them pass into oblivion, nonexistence so complete that they are not even remembered. But a few, thanks to poets, pass into a different kind of eternality: the immortality bestowed by art. The parting day that Gray eulogized and the daffodil that Keats described, for example, are no more, but they have been literally immortalized in poems.

This world, so bent on destroying itself, is the ultimate example of that theme. This mortal life was always evanescent and the world seemingly eternal; now not even the planet we walk about on for our day of existence can be expected to last very long. In every moment it is at risk of being destroyed by powerful madmen.

Many would think the poetic craft to be irrelevant, an absurd anachronism in an age in which communication is founded on accruing the capital of attention, power, and money. However, it is the work, indeed the sacred duty, of the poet today to immortalize not merely the ephemeral beauty of evenings or daffodils in this world, but the fragile and very mortal world itself.

Τhis poetic burden is intensified by the poet’s awareness that everything will be destroyed when the world is destroyed: including every poem mourning the imminent destruction of the world – along with every other poem, from the most brilliant to the humblest doggerel, and every poet and every reader, too.

Yet (as the Tree in my novel Rats Live on no Evil Star puts it) we must hope and believe and trust and keep faith that perhaps in some other world some other trees will be cut down in sacrifice and ripped apart into pulp and flattened into winding sheets and marked with the symbols that record the poem that mourns the world, and perhaps some other people in some other world or time or dimension will read it and memorize it and recite it to their listeners, and like that of the evening and the daffodil, the beauty of this our world will remain alive.

If it is our duty to leave this earth a little bit better, a little more beautiful, than when we first entered it, then this is not by our person that we shall do so, for our individuality is of very little account, but by the things that we say and do that are memorable, hence remembered, that we improve it: the things that have a benign effect on this world. No one has changed this world by who he or she was, but many have changed it, and all can potentially do so, through what they say and do.

This is what the poet accomplishes. In every moment the poet consciously seeks to observe the beauty, the wisdom, around him or her, and then to give it through beautiful words that memorability, that eternality. Gray and Keats succeeded. So too did Shakespeare and Neruda, Han-shan and Borges, Baudelaire and Basho, and countless others. These poets are not remembered for the persons they were or the lives they led, though these things may interest us, but because they succeeded in leaving beauty behind when they left this world, in observing eloquently the evanescence and bestowing upon it eternality.

Faced with its potential destruction at the hands of lunatics, the poet writes upon the world its own epitaph – and thus, though it may be destroyed in a hellfire of radiation, taking with it into oblivion all the evenings and daffodils, our little fragile world will yet exist in the greater universe of beauty and truth.

From the forthcoming book Ranting the Truth. Copyright © 2012 by James David Audlin. All rights reserved.