“I live not in dreams but in contemplation of a reality that is perhaps the future.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke
This week I am looking at a poem by Jonathan Reed. No, he’s not famous; in fact, not much is known about him. It just goes to show that quality can come from anywhere. The poem explains itself rather well.
I am part of a lost generation.
And I refuse to believe that
I can change the world.
I realize this may be a shock, but
“Happiness comes from within”
Is a lie, and
“Money will make me happy”
So in thirty years, I will tell my children
They are not the most important thing in my life.
My employer will know that
I have my priorities straight because
Is more important than
I tell you this:
Once upon a time
Families stayed together
But this will not be true in my era.
This is a quick fix society
Experts tell me
Thirty years from now, I will be celebrating the tenth anniversary of my divorce.
I do not concede that
I will live in a country of my own making.
In the future,
Environmental destruction will be the norm.
No longer can it be said that
My peers and I care about this Earth.
It will be evident that
My generation is apathetic and lethargic.
It is foolish to presume that
There is hope.
– Jonathan Reed
Powerful right? After reading that you first thought is probably along the lines of “wow, I feel terrible about society right now”. Consider for a second your own perspective on the future. Did you connect with this vision? Do you believe that Reed’s proposed future is realistic? Personally I find it exceedingly cynical. Reed describes a world where people have lost sight of what is important in life and where the expression of individuality as a force is diminished. He so firmly believes that people will be rendered incapable of action that he refuses to accept that any hope exists. Reed not only portrays a world that is defeated and decadent but blatantly accepts it as truth. He begins by affirming what he sees as an acceptable form of society that he can live with. He understands that it might be an unpopular view of society, declaring it to be a “shock”, but he sees no other choice but to accept it and move on. It is important to note that he does not necessarily want this future that is in store; there is an implied tension in the last couple of lines, as if he is defending his point of view. This method of reason makes the poem appear more as an argument than just another opinion. Reed is not just showing the reader how he came to this understanding of the future, but wants the reader to accept it for what it is. Cynical? I think so.
Okay, now that we have tightly established that this poem is designed to not only depict an objectionable future but to instill that as our framework for the future I have a slight confession to make: I left out the last line of the poem…oops. Here it is:
And all of this will come true unless we choose to reverse it.
Now read the poem again, in reverse (bottom line to top line); go ahead, I’ll wait. Done? Totally different, right? This seemingly cynical poem has now been reconstructed as a resolute stand against the pessimistic viewpoint we found earlier. Furthermore, what makes this poem so impactful after reading it in reverse is the original reading; Reed did not have to create this poem in a palindromic fashion. He could have just said “we need to be good, don’t be bad, um thanks”. Instead, he chose to show us a world that (most) people find repulsive first. The effect this creates is astounding. It’s like getting a drink of water after running a mile, or having a five-course meal after three weeks of astronaut food. Reed has craftily found a way to make us feel inspired to create the future for ourselves, to fashion it into something we can live with, and to protect it from what it might become.
Two exceptionally polar worlds have been presented in this poem. Which generation do you belong in?