One of the statements I have read in the past year that is echoing in the chambers of my mind is one by Kenneth Burke: "What is necessary, permanent, valuable may be lost or lost sight of or dismissed in the course of the inevitable changes of history." The sentence reverberates every time I see another key element of the Classical education lost by the wayside. For example, the ideogram of the labyrinth: what a handy symbolic tool to use in navigating through tricky situations.
Inherited knowledge one can use to think through situations; leading one to the good life, bolstering one with a moral compass... Dulce et utile. And this is often what is meant by the "poetry" that our age lacks. And yet, we have examples of Roland Barthes who declared one of our narrative forms dead for most of his life, only to attempt a last minute resurrection of the form, within himself, before his death... How much more will we have to discard before we remember to respect our ancestors, and not be as categorically dismissive of older forms of learning?
When I write a question like that, I realise that it is connected to my longing to better understand some of the more visible characters of this age (as I tried, rather clumsily, in my birthday post). And before you throw a rotten tomato my way, and tell me to get on with my own work, I would like to apologise for the writer who seeks to give voice to the age, to bring sense to it. Charles Dickens is known for being the sponge of his age - Bakhtin writes beautifully about how he soaked up the different social registers and realities, reminding us of the billingsgate.
And last night, to dramatic operatic choir, I came across a blog post entitled, A Collector of Scraps, "Athenaeus has many such tales and is always diverting, whether he
discourses of eels or harlots or pigs' trotters or towels or turnips or
grammar or perfumery or fishmongers (...) It is
fortunate that these scraps have survived. They give us glimpses into a
state of refinement such as no longer exists. In that Alexandrian
conglomerate is embedded the residue of civilization."
I am still convinced that a compelling portrait of our age can be written: people must be getting something they perceive as valuable in exchange for the Classicism and history they have cast out. It may be a fata morgana,but surely it must be as compelling as the one Palmer writes of in the children's book, Beyond the Paw Paw Trees? In that mirage, there was an eccentric aunt, Babylonian garden, and gold.
I see the poet's task today as two-fold: one, in recovering the scraps from the past that are "necessary, permanent, valuable", and two, connecting them up with the present. But that can only be done if one can see the present: if not, the bridge has nothing on which to rest.