The poetry you know and the poetry you don't know
Some of you who've read this blog for a while may recall that I like poetry, and that as a child my school assignments included memorizing a lot of poetry.
And so it is that often when I'm thinking about a subject--even a political one--a poem or line of poetry comes to mind. It happened the other day with, of all things, Saddam Hussein's trial and the poem "Daddy" by Sylvia Plath. And it just happened again with a comment to my nepotism post.
When I was composing that comment, I had to look up Thomas Gray's poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." I hadn't read it in decades, and I was struck by the fact that in this single poem there are at least three famous lines--lines that have become, to a greater or lesser extant, part of the buzzing hum of sayings--cliches, really--that swirl in our heads and have become part of our popular knowledge base whether we're aware of them or not.
Often, we haven't a clue as to where these sayings come from or why we know them. But many come from poetry, even if we don't know the poems any more.
Here are the lines (or, in one case, phrases) from Gray's Elegy that I've tagged as famous. You may not know all of them, but I bet you know some, even if you detest poetry and have never read the poem:
The short and simple annals of the Poor.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
The same is true for Shakespeare, Robert Burns, countless other poets--their words have seeped into our culture and become so much a part of our language that they are almost indistinguishable from proverbs such as a stitch in time saves nine; waste not, want not.
As I was musing about this, it struck me that this fact is no longer true of recent poetry. Gone are the memorable and quotable phrases that become well-known--unless, of course, you count parodies such as the "who blew up da owl?" jokes at LGF and elsewhere, making fun (and rightly so) of the erstwhile poet laureate of New Jersey, Amiri Baraka.
Who can recall a single line from a poem written in the last fifty years that has become commonly known? And, lest you think the lack is just because it takes time for these things to catch on and percolate, who can nominate a line of recent poetry that you imagine has even a chance of living on for future generations?
One of the last poets who wrote such things may have been Frost, and perhaps Eliot. Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in; I took the one less traveled by; Not with a bang but a whimper; April is the cruelest month--there are quite a few.
But as I rack my brain trying to think of a more recent example of a memorable poetry line that has seeped into the public consciousness, all I can come up with is the first line of Ginsberg's "Howl" (so far I can't find the text online, so there's no link to the full poem itself): I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness... As it serendipitously turns out, the poem was first declaimed by Ginsberg almost precisely fifty years ago: on Oct. 7, 1955, to be exact.
Practically everyone knows the line; almost no one has read the poem (have you? I haven't). Ginsberg was somewhat of a one-trick pony, as far as I know--that line caught fire, but not much of anything else he wrote ever did, although he remained a celebrity for most of his life. It's also odd that the line tends to be misquoted as "I have seen the best minds of my generation..." and, in that misquotation, is often used for the purpose of parody (see this for examples).
So perhaps we can date the death of the poetic quote as household word--and to poetry itself as having any sort of deep importance to most people outside of the narrow range of literary academia or a few stalwart diehards such as myself--to its swan song fifty years ago, Ginsberg's "Howl." If any of you can think of a truly famous line of recent poetry other than outrageous travesties such as Baraka's, I request that you hereby submit them. And by "recent," I mean within the last fifty years.
(And by the way, if anyone has in mind the vaguely famous line from "The Gift Outright" by Frost, recited at John Kennedy's 1961 inaugural--"The land was ours before we were the land's--no dice. The poem was actually written in 1942.)