Monday, April 24, 2006


The greatest threat to civilization is civilization itself. I wrote that line in graduate school while attempting to compose a poem linking the actions of a child, of Matisse, and of Ronald Regan. The notion behind the poem was something like: the size of your sandbox influences the nature—and consequences—of your “play.” I never could get that poem to work. I suspect this may be because it’s difficult to imagine a single action with truly global ramifications. Then again, it may be impossible to write poetry about President Regan because he is, in many people’s minds, a caricature of one sort or another. Nevertheless, within the barren landscape of that poem, I discovered that single jewel of a line that sounded to my ears like it should shimmer somewhere in the thin-leaf pages of Bartlett’s.

In fact, the instantaneous familiarity of the line led me to believe that this had been a case of accidental plagiarism. So, I walked over to the local Barnes & Noble and scoured the reference shelf for famous quotations. I read countless quotes on civilization. To this day, my favorite is Gandhi’s response to the question, “What do you think of Western civilization?” Yet, among all of those quotes, I couldn’t find that line.

Next, I tried an Internet search. Google returned thousands of links about civilization and its threats, but no single quote combined the elements that you can see above. Yet, despite the mounting evidence, I could not convince myself that I had, in fact, written a line like that. So, I asked one of the poets who was acting as an advisor on my thesis. Of course, he could not place the line, and helped persuade me that this wasn’t a case of internalizing something I’d once read a tiny bit too much.

But how could you place a line like that in a poem? After all, even if anthropology, cultural theory, and philosophy do inform poetry, they are not the foundation of it. No. The foundation of poetry is, quite simply, the five senses channeled through your imagination. If you’d prefer abstracts like “civilization,” focus on becoming a social critic like Baudrillard. So, what could I do with the line? I couldn’t just cut it and forget about one of the best phrases I had ever written, could I?

Eight years later I certainly could. That poem has lain dormant somewhere in my files for nearly 6 years. So why worry now?

In graduate school, however, my attitudes were slightly different. Instead, I chose to frame the line as an epigram by a distinguished historian. Of course, I had no intention of giving what may be the only moment approaching genius in my entire poetic career to someone like Howard Zinn, so I invented an academic. His name was A.D. Knight. He was, of course, the type of gentleman who felt most comfortable in a crimson jacket and a monocle. We had plans—occasionally very elaborate plans. Unfortunately, I’ve heard very little from Mr. Knight. I’ve begun to miss him.

A few years ago, I uncovered the poem again. I toyed with the last stanza, changing Regan to Carter, then to Cesar, and then back again. That stanza never came together. Maybe someday it will. Maybe someday you’ll see that poem, recognize Mr. Knight’s name, and wish him well on his post-modern quest. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll even pause for a moment and wonder, why does this make me think of FDR?


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