June 5, 2019

Poetry in the Tech Era I: Crossing the Barrier

The Claremont Laemmle movie theater

“I shall try, inspired by the Word that comes from above, to say something useful about the language of people who speak the vulgar tongue, hoping thereby to enlighten somewhat the understanding of those who walk the streets like the blind, ever thinking that what lies ahead is behind them.” – Dante, De Vulgari Eloquentia

I came to poetry the long way ‘round—introduced to it like so many children are: in the back of a rattling car listening to the melodious cracklings of Shel Silverstein’s cassette tapes; laughing at a character with peanut butter stuck to their teeth. Back then, poetry was as foreign to me as football was (I’ve always preferred fútbol)—oh sure, I suffered through scribbling a few lines in elementary school, and I choked down the iambs in my middle school readings of Shakespeare, but it wasn’t until somewhere around seventeen that I was reintroduced to poetry for my own sake. In the then-new Claremont Laemmle, sitting next to my dad in the dark theater, I had my first poetic moment since my car rides listening to Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too.

The Bond film Skyfall, of all things, brought me into the fold. In the film, director Sam Mendes intercuts a reading of Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (excerpt below) with shots of Bond running to a courthouse in order to cultivate the film’s theme of determination:

“We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

While I sat there in the dark, next to my fifty-four year old father (who at the time was struggling with his own issues), the pains of aging were pressed so firmly into my mind that I couldn’t help but take the poetry of the moment to heart. That gritty determination on Daniel Craig’s face was perfectly mirrored in my father’s, and what budding teenage boy doesn’t see his father as a Ulysses-esque hero?

To strip this allegory down to the bones of it, Skyfall brought poetry to me even though I was in no way “about” poetry at the time—I was a soccer jock and found school to be a distraction from “real life.” Poetry was the most “school” thing I could imagine at that time, so I was naturally opposed to it, but because Skyfall took the words off the page and crammed the poem into my eyes and ears, I found myself compelled to understand what Tennyson had to say. I googled “Skyfall poem,” read “Ulysses” in full, and from there I can draw a direct line to my ongoing relationship with poetry today.

I like to think my story is synonymous with other poetry Stans: a moment of enlightenment where the poetic ether tapped me on the shoulder and brought me into its world. Yet words on a page didn’t work for me then as they do today. It took a fifty-year franchise’s best movie, Dame Judi Dench’s masterful reading of Victorian poetry, and a convenient parallel to my family issues to even catch my attention. Which is why I think a discussion about how poetry is evolving in the Tech Era is of vast importance—so that we, as poets, can continue to ferry the blind across that barrier of vulgar language that Dante went on to write his Commedia about, and show more people the paradise that is a life with poetry! Keep an eye out for my next post (up in a couple weeks), where I will be discussing a thus-unexplored avenue of for Poetry in the Tech Era.

– Cassady O’Reilly-Hahn


A Moment of Zen:

Cat Resolutions
This year I won’t scratch
the couch, the rug, or the bed
unless I’m hungry.

Vinny the cat