On Forgetting Things
Message sent to someone who felt "Lest We Forget" is
an unforgiveable piece of mockery and insensitivity:
Thanks for your comment. I think you may be missing something about
that poem: It is intended to be more favorable than unfavorable
to Reagan. Nor is it intended to mock his illness. Of course, the
poem is the poem, and nothing I say here will change the poem for
you, unless it's also in the poem, but let me give you my idea of
1. Context: Most poets I know are liberal, don't think much of
Reagan, consider him sinister or a nice, but stupid person, a fool,
a glib jester, etc. I consider this a rather knee-jerk view, suspect
Reagan was (like Eisenhower) far brighter than most people think
and did some good things. If anything, I'm to the right of him --
tend to vote libertarian. I intended the repeating line (which seems
to be ridiculing Reagan) to be a kind of lure for readers with a
stereotypical view of Reagan, and a way of working from Reagan's
illness to Reagan as president to all the ways in which the rest
of us use forgetting to live or to avoid living. Reagan (my departure
point) is, in this sense, not so much one who forgets as an instance
of our own forgetfulness in various ways. And in fact, our reduction
of him to a stereotype is one form of forgetting.
2. My idea was to get at different kinds of forgetting and link
them, show that, for example, we are all skilled at forgetting a
great deal, and what consequences this has for us. Reagan's current
forgetting is one of several (some far more discreditable) shown
in the poem. Along the way, while bringing up the usual things associated
with Reagan, I point out that his "absurd" economics may
have created prosperity and his "stupid" evil-empire antics
may have helped end the Cold War, etc.
3. More to the point, the poem is trying to get at the glibness
with which we vote, think (politically), ignore, and forget -- WE,
I don't think of Reagan as perfect. In fact, I think he probably
did a number of stupid things (not necessarily those of which he
is accused and probably no more than most of his successors in the
White House). But the poem is not intended to be an attack on Reagan.
It's about the way we view politics and politicians. It's about
the reader. I can't explain exactly how the hook line ("Ronald
Reagan is alive but forgetting things") works, because its
role changes from paragraph to paragraph, and I don't know myself
all the elements of it. I chose it because it has an odd sort of
energy from the clash among its various meanings. For example, when
read the poem aloud, sometimes the line seems cruel, sometimes pitying,
sometimes referring to Reagan, sometimes to the audience, sometimes
funny, sometimes tragic.
For whatever reason, it's one of my most popular poems -- was accepted
for publication by New York Quarterly (which however never published
another issue since that acceptance), then taken by an anthology
and is now in a book of my poems Argyle House has decided to put
out. When I perform it, even liberal audiences seem to pick up that
it's not meant as a mockery of Alzheimers or an attack on Reagan.
Even liberals find it a bit of a relief when what sounds like the
usual glibness turns out to demand more of them than cheering on
their own side.
Or maybe some of them read it the way you do and like it as mockery.
But most who've spoken to me about it have said that it makes them
think more than most poetry on politics.
Basically, the key line, "Ronald Reagan is alive but forgetting
things" is (as long as he lives) simply a true statement, neither
mockery nor praise. What follows it in each section modifies it
in one direction or another. The fact that the statement refers
to alzheimers (one of its meanings) certainly doesn't make it inappropriate
or disqualified for use and repetition in a poem. IF the point of
the poem were to mock Ronald Reagan for having alzheimers, then
your critique would be correct. In fact, I do APPEAR to do that
in a few passages -- and even attack myself (and my listeners) later
in the poem for doing that. The poem does begin with a kind of mockery.
It gradually changes to something else. The mockery is there for
a reason. In a way, it's a booby trap for the reader.
In a way, the energy of the poem is generated by the difficulty
of holding apart and yet seeing as related the various dynamics
(pity, mockery, respect, mockery of the mockers, etc.) conveyed
by that repeated line as it acquires new meanings in the course
of the poem.
Just as an example of the kind of tightwire the poem walks, there's
a line about Reagan having taught us that we can't tell the difference
between a President and a man acting like a President. This begins
with the cliched mockery (Reagan's just an actor), but turns it
around. The target here is not Reagan, but the fact that the Presidency
has become, for us (the voters) a kind of engorged celebrity appearance.
There's a bit more to it than that, but basically, it is NOT an
attempt to assert the cliche, but to turn it around on ourselves.
Reagan, of course, was not JUST an actor. He was an actor who was
also a President. And if, as President, he was also playing the
ROLE of President, what President -- what SUCCESSFUL President --
does not? And how else could one be President, given a nation of
spectators demanding entertainment?
I think, given the above, if you reread the poem, you'll see how
it works. If not, then the poem fails for you. But do read it once