"In Xanadu did Kubla Kan a stately pleasure-dome decree," Samuel Taylor Coleridge
As I writer, I simply can't afford to believe that poetry is dead. Not completely, okay, but maybe some of it should be shot and pissed on but let's not quibble. Lately, I've been thumbing through several poetry archives on my bookshelf, learning that, like archaeology, once you dust off the dust, you can find poems that are still alive and speaking with wise, modern tongues.
To wit, in the desert, in some unnamed "antique land," the remains of a stone monument lie, broken into "two vast and trunkless legs" and "near them ... half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command" is that of Ozymandias, self-professed "king of kings," whose epitaph ironically boasts "look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" To make matters historically worse for the original stoned Ozzie, "Nothing beside remains ... round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away."
Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem, Ozymandias, has long been a personal favourite, maybe originally in the eyes of a restless high school English literature student due to its brevity, but also because it has firmly stuck in and continually jumped out of the memory bank, as a cautionary omen for those who get too big for their earthly britches.
According to Camille Paglia, in her superb analysis of this creation in her book, Break, Blow, Burn, Shelley reportedly wrote the poem "straight out in less than an hour on a flyleaf of a borrowed book.”
Most writers, certainly songwriters, will confirm that many of their greatest or most revered, works exploded in much the same time span, kaboom, as if the words are writing themselves onto the page and one is just the messenger of some unconscious communication with the Time Gods.
On another level, I chuckled at the last part where Percy Bysshe is grabbing someone else's book and scribbling words on its flyleaf. I always tell my students that there are few rules to song writing. One rule is to have a pen and a note pad on your person wherever ya go; always. I made that mistake too many times myself, stuck without the tools of the trade, cause like fishing, if ya don't jerk the rod quick enough when the little fishes bite, they're gone.
The lament of every writer is to fumble in her or his pockets and mutter, "My kingdom for a pen." Next time ya go into a darkened washroom, where all you can see is the faint glow of a laptop light emanating from the crapper stall, don't panic. It's some fool writer in the moment of inspiration.
On to yet another level that gets back to the text. The ending of Ozymandias chills, most. "Boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Nothing beyond the shattered stones exists. Who then would ever come across Ozzie's conceited proclamation? Moreover, there is nothing out there, into the far away. All has been levelled and been buried by the sands of time. Of course, we know that somewhere Lady Gaga is playing her piano but, like Ozzie,, her and the whole parcel of humanity, rich and poor, await the same fate - obscurity, or at least, being swept away and scattered to the desert winds, shrunk into grains of sand, signifying nothing. Ergo, boast loudly as ye may but do not strut the earth in arrogance beneath your crown of glory, for the vultures circle, the flesh growing frail.
Impressed by, even motivated by but, I hope, not despairing. Otherwise nobody would have picked up a pen or quill post-Shakespeare. Well, except for the power-hungry whose favourite song seems to be "anything you can ruin I can ruin better.”
Paglia suggests that the "shattered visage" warns of the fascism of Mussolini or the totalitarian Stalin, but then says that, maybe, Shelley, rooted in his own times, had Napoleon in mind. Who knows, eh? With some irony, Napoleon's soldiers allegedly shot-off the nose of the Sphinx in Egypt and that Ozymandias is quite possibly Ramses 2, the pharaoh defied by Moses. History, as does God, works in mysterious ways.
The point being that such rotters go to their graves and gravestones carrying their heads between their legs, if not literally severed by a guillotine, symbolically, in a seeking of immortal grandeur, if not atonement. Thus, Ozzie, with one last brave middle finger lifted to the world, brags that "the Mighty" have no chance of matching his great works. What a silly ass.
Ramses 2 allegedly feared the Jews who ran hither and thither out of Egypt, finally escaping tyranny by crossing the recently departed Red Sea. Today, Syrian refugees, and others, jam into tiny, leaky boats to cross the Mediterranean. History repeats. One wonders if, while alive, Ramses may have yelled, "Let's make Egypt Great Again!"
He certainly had a penchant for poking his hand inside his jacket, much as the Donald who always has his smart phone, now there's an oxymoron when we're talking about Trump, handy, his little pinkies ready to tweet.
"To tweet or not to tweet, that is never the question"
The Donald, with his "frown and wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command" lies within the depths and confines of his own imperial primeval palace, contemplating the coming locus plague, ascending into madness, like the laudanum-laced Coleridge awakening in Xanadu, seeing visions of a wire-tapping Obama.
In the Divided States of America, "somewhere in the sands of the desert a shape with lion body and the head of a man" and with "a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, slouches towards Bethlehem.” Meanwhile, "the best lack all conviction, Republicans daring not to tread on the emperor's fallen clothing, while the worst Democrats are full of passionate intensity.” (The Second Coming, William Butler Yeats).
Maybe, whenever he figures out the nuclear code, his final words will be "Look on my works ye Mighty and despair! I know more than the Generals know,” as he leaves nothing behind but "the lone and level sands,” with all human life, as Emily Dickinson would have it, "soundless as dots - on a Disc of Snow" is from Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers)
Maybe, we can hope that instead of Hitler's speeches, the Donald will read some poetry.
Bob Stark is a musician, poet, philosopher and couch potato. He spends his days, as did Jean-Paul Sarte and Albert Camus, pouring lattes and other adult beverages into a recycled mug, bearing a long and winding crack. He discusses, with much insight and passion, the existentialist and phenomenological ontology of the Vancouver 'Canucks,' a hockey team, "Archie" comic books and high school reunions. In other words, Bob Stark is a retired public servant living the good life on the wrong coast of Canada.
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