In the future, I might share more posts about the intersection of the worlds of poetry and pop culture, although I fear it could dilute my content. The integrity of my blog could be threatened, if, in an ingratiating attempt to rope in more viewers, I feature too many instances in which television and movies make passing references to poetry. On the other hand, the fact that these references are made at all serves to legitimize poetry’s relevance in the popular consciousness.
If Bryan Cranston from Breaking Bad does a dramatic reading of Ozymandias, it hauls a romantic poet a few fathoms up from the depths of obscurity. A viewer, recalling the poem from high school, might be inclined to dust off Shelley’s work. Ack, who am I kidding! A Shelley cameo doesn’t benefit Shelley — it benefits Breaking Bad. Inserting poetry helps elevate a mere TV crime drama into a grand tragedy. Even people who don’t especially like poetry can be impressed by the aura of class it bestows. And why not introduce an episode in a compelling and original way? I can’t fault the writers for that; in fact, it earns my respect.
I enjoyed Breaking Bad. And speaking of poets, Shelley had a minor role in comparison to Walt Whitman. It was a volume of Leaves of Grass, with an inscription by “W.W.”, that served as a key plot point.
But that said, this illustrates the role poetry has been reduced to. In the landscape of popular culture that’s as empty and barren as the New Mexico desert, poetry is like an undergound aquifer that occasionally gets tapped into by better screenwriters for the sake of inspiration and novelty. Other than that, it doesn’t serve much of a purpose.
I don’t oppose television. I like it. But I do object to its prominence in our lives. One of the reasons I’m even writing this blog is because my immediate neighbor had his driveway resurfaced. The construction work somehow inadvertently severed the wires carrying free cable TV to my home (this after having unsubscribed months before).
Television, like alcohol, is a socially approved drug whose abuse is consistently under-reported by those who consume it. At most, abusers admit to occasional weekend binges, and justify their addiction with their superior taste. It’s okay in our society to be addicted to great television shows. It’s even something to brag about.
In considering our culture, it is important never to neglect this fact: if it’s not on TV or in a movie, it might as well not exist. This applies not only to a neglected form of expression like poetry — it applies to everything of value that doesn’t get ratings. Consider knowledge of history: Americans dwell in a bizarre, ahistorical world, vaguely aware of current events, forgetful of the recent events, and almost completely oblivious of past. For many Americans, their entire knowledge of Roman civilization is limited to having seen Gladiator.
Again, I’m not against all television content. Like any technology, it can serve good and bad ends. I just wish it wasn’t the end-all and be-all of our culture. In the food pyramid of the American cultural diet, there is one main food group, and it has a recommended serving of over three hours a day. For the most part, it is devoid of nutrition.
Television’s job is to entertain. That’s its first job. It doesn’t want to elighten you, it doesn’t want to motivate you, it doesn’t want to inspire you. It wants your eyeballs, not your mind. It doesn’t want you to be happy, it wants you to consume. It doesn’t speak to your soul; it speaks to the gawking voyeur vulture that lurks in us all.
Great poetry can last well over a hundred years — but in a hundred years, who will be talking about the television shows we watch now? The shallow ponds of popular entertainment evaporate quickly, but poetry runs deep.