Poetry and Shock


I think people follow sensational news stories that escalate into media frenzies at least in part to try to figure out why the stories have been whipped up into frenzies at all. We wait for some news outlet to supply us with something genuinely revelatory, the newsworthy fact that will justify all the live feeds and up-to-the-minute rumor-mongering, correspondents in parkas before the hotel, the impounded car.

Do we hear anything during these updates that sheds profound light on the human condition, or exposes some deep flaw in law enforcement, government, morality, ethics? Anything that makes us strive for something better, improve our relations to each other or ourselves? News that stays news? No. Instead, we get tawdry and callow soap operas, embarrassments of voyeurism. Nothing we haven’t seen or heard a thousand times before. Aerial shots of a white bronco passing slowly underneath the overpasses of LA. Posters of the pretty girl on telephone poles, her body later found in a trash bag at the base of the canyon.

To whom — besides the stubbornly naïve — is the news ever in any way surprising? Are there still hermits and anchorites so insulated that they are startled to learn that powerful boys of privilege will think themselves above the law? Every generation has its Raskolnikov, probably every family does. Who is still alarmed and surprised by human behavior? Are we not all human here? Don’t we all have vile thoughts that we struggle with? Do we not all find ourselves humiliated at one moment and smugly triumphant at another? I am all sorts, and so are you. The only surprise for me comes when I do not identify with something glorious or grotesque, and it is a rare surprise indeed. My mind is capable of imagining all sorts of horrors. I commit none of them, but I do not underestimate other members of my species to take that step. Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow.

There is indeed an appeal for a poetry in which the author is “a connoisseur of yourself” because the vast undifferentiated mass of humanity drifts through life, somnolent, watching Fox news, always surprised, baffled, alarmed, terrified. Every moment. And the calluses build up over their raw, tender parts. Their carapace of fear prevents them from sensing almost everything that comes at them, and indeed pretty much everything within themselves. Mute and distant shocks, like a submarine striking a manatee. Those few among us who can say with Socrates, “I know nothing,” startle and amaze the rest of us. You have robbed me. God, I am naked. What shall I do?

So a poetry that offers such otherwise banal insights into the same self we have entombed within ourselves, like Paul D’s little tin box — this poetry can sell, and can actually seep into the groundwater of these polluted little ghetto-selves that would otherwise watch with rheumy eyes the clock ticking down to their unremarkable deaths. These are facile shocks, but useful to the anesthetized masses to simulate wakefulness.

But we want from poetry something truly startling, and not merely predictably shocking, not the shocks we can get used to; we can masticate with our rotted gums almost any pap dished out to us. Shock is easy, and mass-producible. We can commodify horrors.

We want from poetry something gently revolutionary, something sincerely strange and unfamiliar. Instead, we get the pretty girls, the fleeing black men, the millionaire sons blasting their sleeping parents with shotguns. We find a strange comfort in these images, we can sing along to the refrains. We can excitedly recite the verses with one another. We can forge a community from such familiar elements. Is that really what we want?