It was a different time I suppose. Before all things teenaged were “very online” as the young folks say, it was possible to convince yourself you were “cool” for a full host of reasons and as long as you could convince your small cadre of friends it was indeed the case, well then—you were cool. And so it was my buddies and I in our tiny town in the middle of the 90’s found ourselves extravagantly cool for finding the most “hardcore” poems—yes, poems—we could turn up in the school library, and off we would go loudly repeating them, after congratulating ourselves for scandalizing the poor Mennonite librarian with our interlibrary loan requests of The Communist Manifesto and Beyond Good and Evil.
Out of the glare of the perpetual prospect of internet infamy and the chorus of the entire world telling you how pathetic your dorky life was, it was a magical time and place I lived—a school too small to have cliques or a real chance at being trendy, and a cultural moment where sarcasm’s acidity melted away most prospects of those who would feign such cosmopolitan stances. Nostalgia, time, place—all essentials to the weight a poem carries at any time, but here in the rudderless sea of 2020 caused by Covid, stripped of the warp and weft of the things that give our calendar friction, these themes are recently at the forefront of my mind.
Poetry often takes a backseat in the so called “discourse” of our day, unless someone is attempting to be pithy, powerful, or prophetic. This year of years has done more than its fair share to conjure the amateur apocalyptic prophet in us all, and mine calls to mind that favorite old standard we of the intense High School literary dork cast of mind loved to recite: “The Second Coming” by William Butler Yeats. Of course, the most hardcore poem you could recite was from an American anthology of poetry, and it was clearly “Babylon Revisited” by Amiri Baraka:
“The gaunt thing / with no organs / creeps along the streets of Europe” sounded heavy metal to us, and of course a poem that cussed multiple times and ended talking about “your eyes peeling to red mud” was red meat to a group of 16-year-old boys. But Yeats’s mystical end-time evoking feast of symbols was a close second in our imagined poem competition, and as the years have born witness, understandably longer lasting, perhaps due to the electrical vagueness of its haunting images.
So much about the last six months screams “the center will not hold,” and while we may worry if there are any of the best left to question their convictions, certainly the passionate intensity of the worst fills every spare second of our attention. Few metaphors can conjure the palpable stunned terror of 2020 than a sphinx-like creature with a blank gaze and slow thighs. With what do our news feeds bombard us, but the increasing shadow of a rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem to be born?
And yet whatever growing up might mean, one thing for sure it does is the ability to steal the glamorous and gore-filled fun of loudly announcing the end of the world carelessly during the “end of history.” Ignorant of Clinton’s sorties leveling the Balkans, or the seed of future wars being telegraphed in some bay on the other side of the world in Yemen, Yeats could lead us to a place where dire predictions were as exhilarating as they were costless. In the words of another Yeats poem:
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.
The Stolen Child was another of Yeats’s early poems, but I can attest that, like the wars and rumors of wars bubbling under the post-Cold War veneer, we paid it little mind to it back then. Desert sands replaced by verdant landscapes of a dreamy Irish past, perhaps we spent just enough time outside to never notice how enticing a faerie-ladden oasis would sound to tired adult imaginations. But of course the real answer for why it never caught our eye is explained in its most famous line itself:
For the world’s more full of weeping
Than you can understand.
Here in 2020, with two decades under our belt of re-started History just in time for a pandemic to make time stand still, the widening gyres and lost falcons really don’t stick in my mind like they used to. That line, though: it cuts at me in a way I could have never predicted. As a child I couldn’t understand it. As an adult, I understand it all to well.
I am no longer that child, running free in the 1990’s American version of rocky highlands and wandering water, but have children of my own. An anxious lot most of them, part of that may be the nature of familial traits. For certain, there is much in the air that contributes to their baseline worries, and the Covid crisis, like most things, did not bring on their fretting so much as reveal things that already long existed. In this sense it has been truly “apocalyptic,” not in the jagged spectacle of “The Second Coming” with its beasts, but in the ancient sense—to reveal what has been hidden—and to go from their childhood anxieties to my adult ones, I realize what hurts me so deeply is that I simply do not have to fear a faerie stealing away with my kids: such an alluring possibility has been stolen away from them.
I do not mean this to be one more saccharine parental confession, a public penance fueled by nostalgia for a past that never was. I do not mean that they “need to get outdoors more,” or “that life was simpler back in my day,” or even that their days are “overloaded” with schoolwork and activities meticulously chosen for future success. We hike more than I ever did. I did far more activities. I am rather proud of the simple joy and kindness they often show each other and their friends. I am not even bemoaning the fact that they face large scale hardships that I myself never encountered. In some ways, I think they are better equipped to live through such things, mostly because I simply think they are better people than me.
Instead, I dwell on the utter fact of that line.
The weeping of the world outstrips anyone’s full comprehension, but certainly a child has no business being tasked to even attempt doing so. The world’s pain and tremors are much more justly imagined by them as monsters, and even the horrific troubles and horrors so many children face deserve to be rendered as such. Not because monsters “aren’t real” or “are imaginary,” or any such reductionism. It is offensive to the strength and depth of children to misunderstand their monsters in such baldly gross terms.
No, to deny them their slouching beasts and blood-dimmed tides is to deprive them of a certain kind of hope. As the old saying goes, monsters can be defeated. The flat and featureless fears of adults slowly dig our graves and seemingly always win.
And here in 2020, as seismic as the terrible shifts are that each new event shakes its way on the world stage, we have somehow destroyed the ability for there to be monsters. We no longer know how to mourn the dead: instead we have countless arguments about what the numbers and the percentages mean. We no longer anguish over the devastating divides within our broken communities: we have arguments over political parties and abstract policies. We no longer are terrified, we are scared or numb, but we do not have the imaginative capacity to see the creatures we now face. We cannot be united together against a common foe because we have lost the ability to narrate such a story. All we have is the tidal wave of news battering us daily as larger pieces of ourselves are carried off by the relentless beating of mindless waves.
The world weeps openly, and in the constant open wound that our information of world events has become, even children shielded from the onslaught of screen time and social media still breathe that same air, their atmosphere the one we who watch the ever unfolding “news” exhale out at what we see. But it is not that they hear of such woes that is the problem—children always have. It is not that they will see the veil ripped aside by our newest cataclysms—children have always been apocalyptic at heart. It is that before their time they are becoming “the solemn-eyed” ones of the poem. In a world devoid of monsters, there is no threat of faeries to steal the child away, but neither are their pools sufficient to bathe stars, nor slumbering trout sufficient to whisper to, and unquiet their dreams.
Bo Bonner is the Director of Campus Ministry and Assistant Professor at Mercy College of Health Sciences in Des Moines, IA. With Budd Marr, he is co-host of The UnCommon Good podcast. You can find him on Twitter @RuinUrLifeWell.
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