In an interview once, back in the ‘sixties when the “Vietnam War” was raging, I was asked if I regarded my poem titled “Burning the News” as a political poem in any way. I replied that perhaps it was “political” in the sense that it was relevant to current events — but in the larger sense, not really, because I thought it would be relevant to almost any period in recent history.
Then I was asked, “Is there a danger in bringing politics specifically into a poem?” I said that when one writes on a subject that's specifically of contemporary import he or she runs the risk of seeing the poem become obsolete. However, one can simply use the contemporary event as a takeoff point for a larger statement like an ode on the sinking of the battleship Maine, for instance; something that has a lot of import for a moment, but not so much for later on. I didn’t realize then that time can make a poem irrelevant for other reasons as well.
For instance, take Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s lyric “The Ropewalk” which I think is a great poem, but that most people might regard as baffling because they have no idea what a “ropewalk” is. The scene it describes is a long building with a stanchion at each end in which rope was manufactured in the days before steam, when ships were powered by wind. The spinners walked backwards, round and round, braiding the many ropes, great and small, that were required in those elder days — rope is the central mage of each stanza:
In that building, long and low,
With its windows all a-row,
Like the port-holes of a hulk,
Human spiders spin and spin,
Backward down their threads so thin
Dropping, each a hempen bulk.
At the end, an open door,
Squares of sunlight on the floor
Light the long and dusky lane;
And the whirring of a wheel,
Dull and drowsy, makes me feel
All its spokes are in my brain.
As the spinners to the end
Downward go and renascent,
Gleam the long threads in the sun;
While within this brain of mine
Cobwebs brighter and more fine
By the busy wheel are spun.
Two fair maidens in a swing,
Like white doves upon the wind,
First before my vision pass’
Laughing, as their gentle hands,
Closely clasp the twisted strands,
At their shadow on the grass.
Then a booth of mountebanks,
With its smell of tan and planks,
And a girl poised high in air
On a cord, in spangled dress
With a faded loveliness,
And a weary look of care.
Then a homestead among farms,
And a woman with bare arms
Drawing water from a well;
As the bucket mounts apace,
With it mounts her own fair face,
As at some magician’s spell.
Then an old man in a tower,
Ringing loud the noontide hour,
While the rope coils round and round
Like a serpent at his feet,
And again, in swift retreat,
Nearly lifts him from the ground.
Then within a prison-yard,
Faces fixed, and stern, and hard,
Laughter and indecent mirth;
Ah! It is the gallows-tree!
Breath of Christian charity,
Blow, and sweep it from the earth!
Then a school-boy, with his kite
Gleaming in a sky of light,
And an eager, upward look;
Steeds pursued through lane and field;
Fowlers with their snares concealed;
And an angler by a brook.
Ships rejoicing in the breeze,
Wrecks that float o’er unknown seas,
Anchors dragged through faithless sand;
Sea-fog drifting overhead,
And, with lessening loine and lead,
Sailors feeling for the land.
All these scenes do I behold,
These, and many left untold,
In that building long and low;
While the wheel goes round and round,
With a drowsy, dreamy sound,
And the spines backward go.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
There is so much in this poem that might confuse or baffle a contemporary reader, yet for its time it merely described the ordinary world: girls on a swing; a carnival with a female aerialist in stanza five; a woman pulling a bucket of water out of a well, her face reflected in the vessel rising out of the hole in the earth; a sexton ringing the church bell; the gallows where felons are executed standing in a prison yard; men setting bird traps, sailors dropping lead on a line “sounding” the depth of the water, looking for land in a mist, perhaps — most of these activities are no longer a part of our American lives in the twenty-first century.
But who would have guessed that the scene in this poem I wrote on a standard typewriter a mere half-century ago would seem to be alien to those today who use laptop computers as I am doing right this minute? Years ago I told Anna, the daughter of one of my colleagues, David Hill, about manual typewriters; she couldn’t conceive of it, truly. She had never seen anything but machines that use electricity.
One can no longer burn trash outdoors on one’s own property; therefore, this poem has become obsolete merely because American society passed a law against air pollution — I wrote it after I'd come in from the back yard where I'd been burning the newspapers one day.
The inciting incident for the poem was a game I played to keep myself amused while I burned the papers. I used to put the newspapers in the trash burner, and then I'd take two matches; I'd light them, lay one on one side of the incinerator and the other on the other side, then I'd pretend that these fires were two opposing armies, and I'd watch to see which army gained the most newsprint territory in the least time.
One day, when I was playing the game, I thought, "That's real. That's the way it is, and it's happening now." So the metaphor took on the color of the moment, of the neighborhood scene (listen to Lewis Turco read his poem, "Burning the News"):
BURNING THE NEWS
The fire is eating
the paper. The child who drowned
is burned. Asia is in flames.
As he signs his great
bill, a minister of state chars
at the edges and curls
into smoke. The page rises,
glowing, over our neighbor's
roof. In the kitchens
clocks turn, pages turn like gray wings,
slowly, over armchairs.
Another child drowns, a bill
is signed, and the pen blackens.
The smoke of Asia
drifts among the neighbors like mist.
It is a good day for burning.
The fire is eating the news.
The smoke of the burning newspapers both literally and figuratively permeated the neighborhood just as the news about the war in Vietnam floated through the air, and we watched it on television, and nobody did anything about it — it was there all the time, suffocating us.
And if the poem works, it works because both levels of the poem are real — both the actual, everyday situation, including the game I was playing, and the allegorical level: the news of war stifles us and makes us impotent as human beings. We become mummies removed from the real world where people are being killed — not by bullets, but by a willed, safe anesthesia of the imagination, of the rational mind. We are spectators in the death of ethics and morality, of consciousness and action — our own death, as well as the death of armies. The question is, though, does the poem still work, or has it followed “The Ropewalk” into the mist of ages? How many people even read newspapers anymore?
"Burning the News" is from Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, www.StarCloudPress.com, 2007, ISBN 978-1-932842-19-5, jacketed cloth, $49.95; ISBN 978-1-932842-20-3, trade paperback, $32.95, 640 pages. ORDER FROM AMAZON.COM.