William D. Waltz
Georges Gurdjieff, the mystical philosopher, wondered aloud whether a professor must always forget his umbrella. The absent-minded professor is so well recognized in America that Disney followed Fred MacMurray's plodding footsteps to the bank in 1960 with their box office hit of the same name. Why do intelligent people take refuge in such inert disguises? Formulas provide convenient templates from which lives can be traced. Choose an identity from an assortment of clichés, rough sketches that require only a few additional details. The rigors of self discovery are replaced by the gentle stroking of capitulation, resignation, the unblinking TV eye.
Humanity more often resembles sheep than gods. Hail life, the big cliché. For those who acquiesce, that step onto escalators leading nowhere, life becomes simpler, less cantankerous. The nineteen year old who marries his high school darling is less an ambassador of love than a child of cowardice. Rather than life he's chosen a program that replaces a journey with a stupefying walk down institutional halls.
Poets shudder before each careless cliché, before each phrase that has dried up and lost meaning and become like the shell of a cicada clinging to bark, all life flown away. Hollow words sadden the poet but the man or woman who retreats under the callused skin of a cliché is a greater tragedy.
Poetry has stumbled into a new era of popularity and become a peppy growth industry propelled by a coffee boom more than by a poetic renaissance. The cliché, a handy tool for marketers, appeals to the entrepreneur-ial instincts of many. The horny ears of the market segment perk up when they hear that pavlovian hog call. At open readings poseurs sputter out pastiches of a dead school. Beat sells better today than it did in 1957, an ironic sock in the gut to the soul Beat. The zeitgeist can no more be Beat than it can be Surreal, than it can be known. The courageous walk into the shadows, into life, not without fear but without expectation.
A poignant moment at a Robert Creeley reading fell between poems, a place where many writers stumbled without the comforts of form. Mr. Creeley mused, "As a young man I thought with age came an understanding that made the right decisions more apparent. No, it doesn't get easier." The crowd chuckled nervously. The absent-minded professor failed to show.