Poets from around the world—from Vietnam and the Netherlands and Brazil and Canada, quite different from one another, coming from quite distinct literary traditions—were part of the same conversation. They were trying to invent in language, trying to say what life was like for them, to bear witness to it, to find fresh ways of embodying the experiences of thinking and feeling and living among others. That was what I was suddenly hearing in Beijing—that familiar, exhilarating sound, not so much of poetry, but of the power of the project of poetry. –Robert Haas, “Two Poets” (The Believer, June 2010)
Poets speak with voices that are not just their own, but that also carry the sound of their generation. Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, and the other beat poets of the 1950’s and 60’s remain perhaps the most famous American examples in living memory of this aspect of the “project of poetry”, and though the extreme sexual and narcotic liberation embodied by a poem like Howl can never truthfully be said to represent an entire generation, in their free flowing verses an entire new wave of youth found its expression and definition.
Perhaps something similar is occurring in China today, as Robert Haas demonstrates in his article “Two Poets” in last month’s issue of The Believer. Haas interviewed Yu Jian and Xi Chuan, two leading lights in China’s so-called New Generation of poets born in the wake of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and he observes that in Beijing right now poets are abuzz with “trying to invent language, trying to say what life was like for them, to bear witness to it, to find fresh ways of embodying the experiences of thinking and feeling and living among others”. To say “what life [is] like” is almost by definition something social, a project that depends not only on the poet but the streets she walks on and he people that line it. Moreover, as each poet strives for this goal their voices rise in cacophony that slips in and out of harmony, but with the same rhythms that characterize their group since the instruments themselves all come from the same street vendors, businessmen, and homeless orphans. Thus emerges the voice of their generation.
All this has makes one wonder, what is the voice of today’s youth, the Generation Me born into the Internet and broadband revolutions? The answer eludes us, since the traditional sources that we might first look to have all disappeared or dried up. Typing, texting, and browsing have replaced writing and reading as we knew them and the value placed on genuine literacy and the long attention spans needed to cultivate a voice is at an all time low. Music has become dominated by corporate-controlled mega-personas while thriving yuppie and booze-fueled indie scenes can hardly be thought of as the heirs to decimated folk and home traditions. Like Archean bacteria, we thrive isolated in dark caves lit by the phosphorescent glow of our immense flat panels; the streets hum dead with the whir and kick starts of central air conditioning units.
What occurred to me, however, is that the text, the YouTube clip, the Ke$ha beat, and the air conditioner’s hum are precisely the stuff that fill up our lives, and that’s the stuff of our generation’s poetic voice. If we don’t have each other then we should adopt, modify, and sing with the voices that News Corp. and Hollywood lend us. It’s a refreshingly prosaic conclusion that feels authentic in our socially awkward times, where we’d rather arrange a date by text than call the person and dare face their real sound.
With that in mind, I began to write poems that have these familiar voices. Here’s one:
oil is gushing into the gulf at 60,000 barrels per day
according to representatives two relief wells are
my husband reports I’ve never looked so good
as when I put this cream in my hair
it’s a relief
and I will take his alleged hand
lead him to the beach where
crews have reported tarballs have washed up
where the gulls still caw
I’ll bathe him and
wash my hair every morning
the oil brings out the oil in the follicles rejuvenating roots
giving a lustrous shine
so our sponsors say
and I will be your sponsor
I will look thousands of barrels good for you any day