Poetry as Medication For Cultural Fixations

Written by: Kevin Cox

Mass-fixations of the last year include Baby Yoda, Barron Trump, and the little kid from Ice Age accused of war crimes. These frenzied episodes of social media interest in cultural objects are passionate and brief. In the past, as suggested by characters in Ernest Hemingway’s novella The Old Man and the Sea (1951) and, more recently, Ottessa Moshfegh’s novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), people held cultural icons in their minds for a stabilizing effect. Such cultural icons became a kind of mental touchstone, guarding an individual’s sanity against outside volatility. 

Today, the world is even more volatile, but now our cultural objects are, too. No longer stable touchstones, today’s cultural objects spin through furious cycles of social media fascination to become intense but quickly-disposable fixations. Yet those of us who are condemned to social media because it’s an accessible way of connecting with each other often find that these frenzied fixations on the subjects our culture provides rupture our sense of balance. As a substitute I’d like to offer memorizing a poem.

Our cultural touchstones have evolved into fixations. Santiago, the eponymous character  in The Old Man and the Sea, contemplates the great Joe DiMaggio as a beacon of stability in a moment of crisis. For the fisherman, DiMaggio’s primary presence would have been during a radio broadcast or spread across half a page in the paper’s sports section. In this way, DiMaggio is a static figure and Santiago can meditate on him as an icon of endurance without worrying that he will change.

Set in 2000 to a similar effect, the young woman of My Year of Rest and Relaxation summons Whoopi Goldberg. Whoopi’s cool presence in her films contrasts with the toll of deaths the narrator can’t confront and the excitement of a new century she considers futile. Yet when her VHS player breaks and her pharmacy stops selling tapes in favor of DVDs, Whoopi, her touchstone, ceases to stabilize her moods. Obviously, her VCRs could’ve been converted to DVDs, and the narrator was wealthy enough to buy it all again, but the connection Moshfegh makes by linking Goldberg with changing media shows that our usual methods of consolation are increasingly inadequate as media evolves.

What Moshfegh set in 2000 holds greater weight today. We still reference cultural figures as did the unnamed narrator in My Year Rest and Relaxation and Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, but their effect on us has changed. Maybe we know too much about our celebrities, and their static associations have been morphed into a constant, plentiful, and unstable media stream from which we pluck and fixate. Surrounded by iterations of the same thing and replaced by new content quickly, much contemporary cultural production depends on irrelevance and transience  New posts supplant old posts both on social media feeds and in the content produced by companies like Netflix. We attach to subjects designed for volatility, and mirror it in our actions. Thus people storm the Capitol in response to a volatile icon and threaten to throw animated children into the gulag.

As an antidote to the frenzy, I recommend memorizing a poem. I’m sure there are myriad antidotes to avoiding detrimental fixations, but for me, a poem works well. A text is relatively stable compared to the content churned out today; the right poem is an escape from the ephemeral media stream even as it props you up on a stable rock to judge it from. In a moment of crisis, you can rehearse and contemplate the poem rather than fixating on something that’ll accentuate your plight and take you down with it.

 Once, I was unwell. Under a large dark table in a coffee shop basement I burrowed my phone and memorized a poem, “The Sunlight on the Garden” by Louis MacNeice (here’s a recording). It’s a poem about a dying relationship and a changing Europe whose rhyme ensnares the reader as its sentiment offers an escape. MacNeice hypnotizes with cross-rhymes, inviting you in (“garden / hardens”; “minute / within its”; etc.). The poem is a good contemplation subject because even as it ensnares you in its verse about decline, the final stanza acts as a release. MacNeice sets the terms of his own dissolution. “The Earth compels” the speaker as his dying marriage “advances toward its end,” propelled by the external pressures of time and the onset of World War II. Yet despite its air of grief, the poem ends with the speaker telling his departing wife that he is “glad to have sat under / thunder and rain with you, / and grateful too / for sunlight on the garden.” The speaker holds himself together against a current of personal and cultural catastrophe with an enveloping rhyme-scheme and an eternal conception of what time does to nations and relationships. What makes “The Sunlight on the Garden” worth memorizing as an antidote to our media frenzy is that its speaker stands dignified in spite of an inherent transience. He refuses to go down with it.

The right poem unearths a rock from which you can shuffle your feet, turn your head, and see. To fixate is to focus, but zoomed in too close you’ll only see a singular, inseparable particle and lose the ability to distinguish. We need an alternative, a return to the stability DiMaggio and Goldberg once meant to their contemporaries. For me, that’s a poem.

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