[This year is the 20th anniversary of Cape Cod Light by Michael Hattersley. The other parts of this series are here.]
Michael was a Baby Boomer.
The title of the twenty-fourth poem in Cape Cod Light, Taking the Century by the Throat, comes from the final line of his masterpiece, Provincetown, December 5, 5:00 A.M. Like that poem, this is a meditation on his generation’s role in the world and the rise of the American global dominance.
Like in that poem, Michael weighs the burden of being the somewhat reluctant heirs to the empire built by his parents’ generation. As children, they absorbed the lessons of their parents, learned the heritage of their European intellectual forebears, and the canon of American myths.
He charts his generation’s rebellious hippie phase in their twenties, and the counter-reaction that was their role in the Reagan Revolution in the 80’s. The central portion of the poem echoes the 90’s liberal perspective in Provincetown, December 5, 5:00 A.M.
The poem probably written in the mid to late ’90’s, when Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man was popular. That book argues that the rise of Western Democracy might be “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” The poem was probably also written as he watched his father, an officer and veteran of World War II, and his mother, a British expatriate, becoming old and frail.
In the final, hopeful stanza, Michael identifies his prodigal generation’s return to take up the mantle of the Greatest Generation and lead the world to peace and prosperity.
Taking the Century by the Throat first appeared in Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.
Taking the Century by the Throat
We swallowed it all:
The zip haircuts, the 25 cent movies, the Sunday Schools,
The education, the need to beat the Russians in space.
Most of all, we absorbed the promiscuous beauty,
The poetry our parents knew we should love,
The pantheism of converted Puritans,
The Romantic land- and sea-scapes of fairytales,
In rebellion, the leather attitudes and pop Buddhism,
The confessed self-revelation and self-awareness,
The antibiotics, psychedelics, vaccines.
We thought it all:
Classical nobility, medieval faith,
Humanism, with its glorification of the body,
Enlightenment, with its glorification of the mind.
We whispered with dark intellectuals
About anomie, and the collapse of the West.
We’ve crisscrossed America in jalopies,
Been propositioned by strangers in California,
Danced till dawn amid the sleek bodies of New York,
Retreated to Alpine glades in the Rockies,
Belonged to all parties on the great issues.
We went to bed socialists and woke up on the supply side.
We’ve seen the world and it’s seen us.
It likes what it sees.
It’s only partly the appeal of a frayed affluence.
We’ve fought for freedom, and if we flirted with bigotry,
We vote and manage with a weary tolerance
Born of being a majority in opposition,
Codified by the music and movies we still believe in.
Now that we’ve half-raised our children,
Now that we hold mortgages on some big houses,
Now that we run the Russian economy
And China only waits for a few old men to die,
We could become that gallant royalty,
The true reason two generations fought and died.
The next poem is here.