THE MORNING NEWS WILL RESUME PUBLISHING ON MONDAY  |   For there will be turkey first

Ads via The Deck

Democratic Vistas

Poetry for the Age of American Decline

Poetry can provide solace. It can also remind people to quit freaking out. Poems selected for Congress, nervous shoppers, Maureen Dowd, and the President of the United States.

Frank Foster Post, “Angel-o Silver Leaf,” 2010. Courtesy of the artist and Woodward Gallery, NYC.

By any measure, we are a nation in decline. Unemployment is dangerously high. The stock market—not quite bull, too much bear—bucks like a hornéd grizzly. (I call him “Volitor.”) And most ominously, Hollywood’s onslaught of superhero movies continues without abeyance.

Like many Americans, I have turned to poetry for solace. For decay be the poet’s demesne, and decline—just another iamb to the unblinking versifier. Here is the wisdom I’ve culled from poetry to help weather this stormy time.

WARNING: Do not read any section that does not apply to your own life. For example: If you are not the President of the United States, skip that section. There is no way you will be able to understand it.

Poetry for Consumers


The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

—William Wordsworth, “The World is Too Much With Us”

Hits home, doesn’t it? Look around your house/apartment/vintage loft. I bet it’s full of crap. Hey, no offense. Mine is too. Well, let’s stop laying waste our powers on espresso machines we won’t use, golf clubs we’ll never swing, and ironic T-shirts we shouldn’t wear. Admit it: You’re wearing a Bounce fabric softener T-shirt right now. What the hell is wrong with you?

“I’m sorry, Dennis. I will change. But before I do, are there any expensive trinkets that I should buy?”

Yes. If you do not have a tablet computer, get one! They combine the joy of holding bright things with the thrill of wiping stuff. Oh my God, they are amazing.

Poetry for Pundits

War, the economy, healthcare, education, the obesity epidemic—you have never met a problem so complex that you couldn’t solve it in one angry op-ed. You became a political pundit because in the age of decadence:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

—William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming”

Yes, I mean that as a dis. You don’t have to stop writing commentary, just tone it down.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
To bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanations kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

—Emily Dickinson, “1129”

Tell ‘em, Em. So from now on, please use parables. Or better yet, fables. “One day, the cows met in the barn to discuss the leverage that the rooster had accumulated on a tranche of collateralized egg bonds…” Whatever route you choose is up to you, but a lighter grip on certitude and a less impassioned delivery are quite welcome.

Poetry for Congress

You Dems and Repubs really hate each other, don’t you? Well, I got an idea. Instead of boasting about what an outsider you are and flying back to your district every weekend, stay in Washington. Live there. Get to know the people across the aisle. Eat at the same restaurants, send your kids to the same schools, pray in the same church. Maybe you could have handled the debt crisis like adults if you actually knew each other.

Had he and I but met
By some old ancient inn,
We should have sat us down to wet
Right many a nipperkin!

But ranged as infantry,
And staring face to face,
I shot at him as he at me,
And killed him in his place.
—Thomas Hardy, “The Man He Killed”

So how about you guys hit the nearest T.G.I. Fridays and knock back some nipperkins of Old Crow? Sounds like a blast to me.

Poetry for Credit Card Companies/Mortgage Lenders/Commercial Artists

There’s an old saying in finance: When discussing the economy, be careful quoting Ezra Pound.

“Because as a poet he was out of his depth?”

Yes, there’s that. Also, he was… kind of an anti-Semitic fascist. Still, he had his moments. Take Canto XLV, his polemic on usury:

WITH USURA
wool comes not to market
sheep bringeth no gain with usura
Usura is a murrain, usura
blunteth the needle in the maid’s hand
and stoppeth the spinner’s cunning. Pietro Lombardo
came not by usura
Duccio came not by usura
nor Pier della Francesca; Zuan Bellin’ not by usura
nor was ‘La Calunnia’ painted.

So lenders beware: Punitive rates on credit cards and mortgages may inflate your pockets, but only at the cost of corroding society.

Here, “usura” is pretty elastic, and not just some arcane quibble about interest rates. The concept also works as an argument against using art to seek wealth. Screenwriters, rappers, and luxury handbag designers, take heed:

Usura rusteth the chisel
It rusteth the craft and the craftsman
It gnaweth the thread in the loom
None learneth to weave gold in her pattern;
Azure hath a canker by usura; cramoisi is unbroidered
Emerald findeth no Memling…

That’s right: When profit is culture’s goal, it will not produce Hans Memling. Yikes. Say that louder than a whisper on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and every trader there would freak. The fuck. Out.

Poetry for the President of the United States

Mr. President, I needn’t lecture you on decay. Not only do you confront America’s troubles each day, you’ve recently turned 50. Damn. You’ve got so many gray hairs now I sometimes confuse you for Biden.

Consider, then, another aged, withered, and wizened leader: Ulysses, in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem of that name. The Trojan War and his decade-long adventure throughout the Mediterranean are long behind him. His wiles and his valor, he knows, can’t help him elude the death that old age will soon bring. However, he is not finished yet. As Ulysses looks out from his palace, he says: “There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail: / There gloom the dark, broad seas.”

The prospect of adventure still excites him, and makes him declare:

Some work of noble note may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men who strove with Gods…

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

The full faith and credit of the United States government may have been downgraded by Standard and Poor’s, but there, Mr. President, is a triple-A attitude to carry into the twilight—and maybe even through the 2012 election.

I mean, if America is still around.

Dennis O’Toole is a writer and improv performer from Chicago. His work has appeared on NPR, in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. His blog is at dennisotoole.com. More by Dennis O’Toole