Most Westerners today are freer, safer, and more prosperous than at any previous point in history. What we aren’t is more thoughtful.
This is the age of superficiality.
Consider Time Magazine and the online archive of its covers. In 1967, Robert Lowell was the last poet to appear on the cover of Time. He had been preceded by Robinson Jeffers, Gertrude Stein, Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, T.S. Eliot, and Evgeny Evtushenko. Here are some people who have appeared on the cover since they last featured a poet: Leonardo DiCaprio (twice), Kanye West (twice), BB8, Darth Vader (four times, if you count young Anakin), Yoda, Spiderman, Adele, Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Angelina Jolie, Tom Hanks, Keanu Reeves, Russell Crowe, Bono (thrice), Tom Cruise (twice: with and without Nicole Kidman), Julia Roberts, Pikachu, Jerry Seinfeld, Jim Carey, David Letterman, Jodie Foster, Bart Simpson, Kevin Costner, Superman, Mickey Mouse, Bette Midler, Molly Ringwald, the Alien from Alien and Aliens, Madonna, Crockett and Tubbs, Shirley MacLaine, Cheryl Tiegs (twice), Sylvester Stallone, Brooke Shields, Burt Reynolds, John Travolta, Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, King Kong, Charlie’s Angels, Cher, Elton John, Jaws, and Raquel Welch …
Everyone knows that the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. What might be more surprising is that the great Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman appeared on the same episode. Rock musicians continue to appear on late-night television, of course, but how many violinists do you see on screen with Jimmy Fallon, Seth Myers, or Carson Daily these days? Our public fare is pure sugar. We are a nation with a mental junk-food problem.
Our morning network news programs give us about fifteen minutes of actual news followed by an hour or more of celebrity gossip and fluff. The most popular cable television shows offer little more than the pornography of violence and the violence of pornography. The once-lordly major networks have been given over almost entirely to the vapid wasteland of The Bachelor and Big Brother, vast stretches of nothingness that the average American can sit in front of for hours with no fear that our own empty lives will be made to seem cheap in light of some greater thoughtfulness or beauty …
[T]he pursuit of the true, the good, and the beautiful is, at best, tolerated. As the Marxist theorist Theodor Adorno puts it in “The Schema of Mass Culture,”
from our earliest youth all of this [everything that is beautiful and good] is only admitted on the condition that it is not after all to be taken seriously. With every gesture the pupil is given to understand that what is most important is understanding the demands of ‘real life’ and fitting oneself properly for the competitive realm, and that the ideals themselves were either to be taken as confirmation of this life or were to be immediately placed in its service.
It’s fine to offer music classes or read a poem, as long as you can demonstrate how these things make students better at the “real” subjects we call STEM. But let’s be sure to wink and sneer about their little choral groups or poetry clubs.
I can’t think of any of my hot buttons that Myers didn’t hit (in an essay much longer than my excerpt), though I’m mildly skeptical about “uniquely” in this key paragraph:
The teaching of poetry matters greatly in the age of superficiality, because poetry uniquely and especially calls us back to tradition and to traditional use of symbol. It calls us out of the shallows into the deeper water of human experience. It draws us toward transcendence.
I suspect that great classical choral music does much of that and adds something that poetry lacks: literal music.
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