Poetry is among the oldest arts in all the humanities. The oral culture of our pre-literate ancestors was one in which the most important mythological tales were told through bards who, in order to better facilitate memorization and rhythmic recitation, narrated their tales in meter. The earliest literature from the West and the Near East--the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey--has come down to us in verse, perhaps inextricably bound by what today we call mythopoeia, itself a self-conscious psychological interpretation of archetypes from our own collective unconscious. But the place of poetry in the 21st century, where not only the prose novel but also audio-visual media has lessened the impact of this once hallowed form, is not so highly regarded. Once the mark of an educated man, poetry, even among those of us ensconced in the arts and humanities, holds essentially no place in our curriculum. Since World War I, poetry has atrophied from the consciousness of the educated and is seen now as little more than a hobby or a habit.
However, if there's one area that poetry seems to exist in a particularly purposive way and in an especially decontextualized way, it is in politics. Certain poems, because of their rhythm, language, or form, have a certain ability to invoke inner emotional states that simple language often cannot. But what happens when, after so much decontextualization, after so often hearing the same phrases and words unattached from the themes of their author, that the meaning morphs, not beyond simply what the poet intended (I suspect most poets perfectly understand that the imperfection of language to convey abstract ideas will inevitably lead to their poems being read in ways other than that which they intend), but takes on a new meaning entirely independent from the poem itself. Politicians, and I suspect their critics even more so, make a career from taking things out of context and bending them to the will of their ideologies and political platforms. It is this misunderstanding that I feel has killed poetry far deader than the fickle vicissitudes of modernity.
I spent much of the morning watching Ted Kennedy's memorial service, and it is ineluctable that in the discussion of a Kennedy, whether deferring to the "curse" or not, someone feels the need to quote Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Ulysses's final line about striving, seeking, finding, and never yielding, if I may paraphrase, and it is almost always quoted, in the words of David Yezzi, of The Wall Street Journal, as a "buoyant rallying cry." And those who hear these words in this context are most often apt to think of them as such. But, though I am no literary theorist or critic, it bothers me as a fan of this poem, when these lines are uttered in triumph rather than in lament as they, to my mind, are meant to be read. The poem underscores Ulysses' realization that, with age, comes invalidity, decrepitude, and the feeling of uselessness accompanied by a greater understanding of the fragility of life. Tennyson describes Ulysses--who once ruled Ithaca, fought gallantly in the great Trojan War, and braved the Mediterranean Sea for over a decade before returning home--as an "idle king", a "man made weak by time and fate." "How dull it is to pause," Ulysses bemoans, "to make an end, to rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!" reminding us all not of his greatness, but that all greatness, no matter the heights, shall one day succumb to that which fells us all: the unalterable progress of time. The Kennedy's always quoted this poem (especially Robert, but also Teddy) to promote the drive and determination that so defined their political lives. And now, perhaps with Teddy's passing, it can finally take on the authorial intent of introspection into the fate which awaits us all. These themes are not the most romantic in poetry, but as the age of poetry waned, it became a theme all too common amongst her greatest children. T.S. Eliot, perhaps more than others, in his Gerontion and Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, understood that all that shines will one day burn out, the art of poetry included.
Perhaps, as Kirsten mentioned as she leaned over while we watched the service, the Kennedys really were aware of Tennyson's meaning all along and took Ulysses' advice to heart. Perhaps they understood that, with but one life to live, it is in striving and seeking and finding and never yielding that we find most fulfillment in life. And the tragedy that this family has endured has surely imparted to them the lessons of this reality. And that, in the end, when we are at the precipice, weak with age, deteriorated, our halcyon strength behind us, the words and deeds which we bequeath to our younger generations really are "buoyant rallying cries" and, in true Greek fashion from which the myth of Ulysses derives, it is our words and deeds which echo throughout eternity long after we have yielded to time. If Ted Kennedy's words and deeds do this, they may have been quoting Tennyson correctly after all.