Casting about for something new (and yet sincere) to write this Memorial Day, I happened upon Mark Steyn’s quoting of his daughter’s poetry. In his New Hampshire town, apparently, the tradition is for fifth graders to read selected or self-authored poems in remembrance of the deceased heroes who have safeguarded our freedom and our way of life.
Fille Steyn’s offering is sweet and simple and not but so original and raises the question of poetry in our age. We don’t hear of adults’ reading poetry at such events anymore, and when we do, it seems contrived (not the poetry, necessarily, but the reading). Appreciation of the art seems to have faded. Perhaps the fault lies with the pill of modernism, deathly to the arts, that found a subject for mockery in the effort of crafting profundity and making it rhyme. Perhaps we’re not training ourselves to be as literate as once we were.
Or perhaps (and causal of the other possibilities) with a surfeit of entertainment soaking up our boredom, we’ve lost appreciation for the task of creating and understanding depth. My mother’s father, when we was old, took to writing poetry. One imagines the practice was once more common, and a population that writes poetry for leisure is more likely to read the pros for pleasure.
In 2012, I placed my grandfather’s picture over the first of two poems I wrote on successive Memorial Days. Here’s the second. I have to confess that it took some sitting with the poems, this morning, to find the meaning. That is the point of poetry, isn’t it? Poetry is rich and thick and, when it works, leaves us with memorable lines that somehow hint at the fertile contextual soil from which they sprang. Poetry is work.
On this day, last year, my subject was the quasi-debate about our proper attitude on Memorial Day… celebratory or somber? That question seems related to the loss of poetry. Simple words easily understood allow us to tread lightly on the ideas beneath. We nod at sentiment and congratulate the fifth-grade author.
There is most definitely a place for that, not the least in the training of the young to honor the dead. Still, the effort of deeper communication enriches the honor, and the richest of honors is due to those whom we recall on Memorial Day.