Poems for the Revolution | Jeff McMahon

        I discovered them in a bookshop on one of those pensive Sunday afternoons—maybe you know the type—when every hour droops under the weight of the work looming on Monday. The place smelled of that sweet must familiar to grandmother’s attics, mummies’ tombs, second-hand bookshops: places excused from time. I was studying all the colorful spines on the pine shelves, seeking escape from the death throes of Sunday, when I spied Ezra Pound in a slim paperback. I hadn’t read Pound and I knew I had to, in this life, and what easier entry than a Selected Poems? But nothing has been easy. As I took down the book I took up arms I would carry long after the revolution seemed lost.
        Still in the bookshop, drifting through the pages, “Salutation” stopped me first, but both poems hooked me fast, and in the same cheek.
        “O generation of the thoroughly smug and thoroughly uncomfortable,” begins the one.
        “Come,” implores the other, “let us pity those who are better off than we are.”
        Printed back to back on pages 25 and 26 of the New Directions paperback, “Salutation” and “The Garret” arrive by different means at similar meaning. They ridicule the quest for wealth and status that drives Western—and especially American—society. They celebrate the richer career of living life to the full. In a few lines they express the value the French call good living, arguing for that most unprofitable attitude that life should be, above all, enjoyed.
        I discovered these poems in the 1980s, when there were still rebels in the hills. Not rebels of the sort we have today, who fight for just another brand of capitalism—an illicit product or a repackaged prophet—no, the hills back then were teeming with rebels fighting for a wholly different economy of life, fighting to put fishermen and butlers in charge. And I must have harbored some sympathies; I must have loaded my bandolera with some of the same faulty logic, for on that pensive afternoon in the musty bookshop of a forgotten city I met two poems that have waged their rebellion across the rest of my days.
        Decades spent envying fish and pitying the rich may have deprived my accounts, but they turned up some of the wisdom Pound tapped in those poems: I found “The Joy of Fishes,” written by Chuang Tzu around 250 B.C. and edited by Thomas Merton in 1969. It explains how we know the fish in such bucolic scenes are happy. I found “The Fish and I Will Chat,” inspired by the 14th Century Sufi poet Hafiz and published by Daniel Ladinsky in 1992. It explains why the enviable fish are happy: they “carouse all day in God.”

        Lately people have been reminding me that I’m getting a little long of tooth, and I’ll confess that I can remember flower children and moon walks. I remember a day when we were not all under surveillance, when the staid seemed movable, when a spirit of possibility electrified the air.
        From my perch, the staid has never seemed stodgier than it does right now. Possibility seems less a spirit than a coincidence of profit and technology. As a mass of beings, we’ve never been more unified. We’ve never been more certain what to think, watch, read, buy, aspire to. The dominant ideology has never been stronger, deviation never more difficult. There are, as always, cultures other than the dominant, but they have never seemed more contained. Yes, we’ve had protests, we’ve had demonstrations—the largest the world has ever seen!—but protest has become just another step in the march to war. We can’t keep bombs from falling, and when they do fall, we don’t trouble ourselves too much about it. An army mired in the swamps of Sumer can’t dent consumer confidence because America wields a much stronger army of consumers. The citizenry has become as regimented as the military: we’re charging mostly in one direction, driven by suspiciously similar desires, chasing suspiciously similar objects, at greater speed, with less resistance, while the numbers spin on the fuel pumps like the scrolls of a one-armed bandit.
        We have never had more butlers, never fewer friends. We have never been more thoroughly smug and thoroughly uncomfortable.

        Not that we feel unhappy. The scheme of happiness that’s given to us is a compelling one. When happiness wanes, we buy the next gadget we’re encouraged to want, and the happy tide rises again. It works for a while (I’m still happy about the gadget on which I’m writing this column). It works especially well for the gadget company executives.
        But the fish swim in the lake, and do not even own clothing.

        After the flower children went to seed, after the moonwalks went to newsreel, after the rebels retreated from the hills, the cultural critic Lauren Berlant noticed a shift in the ideal of citizenship from sacrifice for the common good to normalcy in the “intimate public sphere” of ordinary life. In other words, Ask not what you can do for your country—ask what your country wants you to think, watch, read, buy, aspire to. There must be many good citizens who feel the artifice of working and shopping, working and shopping, pausing to absorb commercial messages, then working and shopping—maybe even some who have seen fishermen picnicking in the sun, some who have awakened at dawn in simplicity and in love and entertained the dangerous thought, at that moment, that this is life at its best.
        If so, where are you? Are you holding furtive meetings out of watch of the electronic eye? Are you staying off the grid? Taking to the hills?
        The cause may be lost, but the poet is surely right. Pound wrote these two poems during the Taft Administration. They’ve survived many economies, many technologies, many notions of citizenship, many incarnations of America. In his most over-quoted quote the poet said, “Literature is news that stays news.” The news today is the same as it ever was: no one’s happier than the fish, who, like the God they carouse in, own nothing. In fact, life offers nothing better than the hour of waking together—and not in a palace, but in a garret. How do we fight for values like that when the engine of society prefers that we just be quiet and go shopping?
        In a stampede, it’s not hard to be a rebel: you just have to stand still. So let’s take a stand where the poet points us: Let’s awaken near our desire, pity those who are better off than we are, fill the air with ungainly laughter, die with smiles full of teeth. It’ll be a revolution of good living, a revolution without gunplay, a quiet revolution—as quiet as a poem, as quiet as the dawn, as quiet and subversive as the fishes.

It might also be a lonely revolution. Jeff McMahon is the editor of Contrary.

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Salutation | Ezra Pound

O generation of the thoroughly smug
      and thoroughly uncomfortable,
I have seen fishermen picnicking in the sun,
I have seen them with untidy families,
I have seen their smiles full of teeth
      and heard ungainly laughter.
And I am happier than you are,
And they were happier than I am;
And the fish swim in the lake
      and do not even own clothing. 

The Garret | Ezra Pound

Come, let us pity those who are better off than we are.
Come, my friend, and remember
    that the rich have butlers and no friends,
And we have friends and no butlers.
Come, let us pity the married and the unmarried.

Dawn enters with little feet
    like a gilded Pavlova
And I am near my desire.
Nor has life in it aught better
Than this hour of clear coolness
    the hour of waking together.

© 1926 by Ezra Pound, controlled by contract with New Directions Publishing Corp.  Contradiction:  from the editor commentary | poetry | fiction | chicago | autumn 2007  
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Figure 2 | Lindsay Bell
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Kampala 2012 | Damian Dressick
Today, October the Ninth | Allison Shoemaker
This House | Edward Mc Whinney

Contradiction | from the editor


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