Dispatches | September 30, 2008

The best poetry is timeless and speaks to any age. Yeats’ often-quoted poem “The Second Coming” was written in 1920 in the aftermath of the First World War. He believed the world was on the threshold of an apocalyptic moment, a feeling that resonates today.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

He credited spirits for his theory of the widening gyre and used it to explain that Western Europe was in decline. I have a hunch he’d have a similar suspicion about America today. I don’t remember a time in my life when the country’s affairs seemed more out of hand. Or perhaps this is the first time I’ve paid close attention because I have taken too much for granted a way of life that I value. For those of us who have money in the market, savings in the bank, and a job and a house we want to keep, it is impossible to watch the evening news without a sense of panic and horror. The barn is on fire as we argue over who kicked over the lantern.

As a writer, it seems wise to recommit to what’s important—the work. Unlike stocks and bonds and interest rates a perfectly executed poem or story never declines in value. Recently, I’ve tuned out the news in favor of books. Other than the Sunday New York Times, an occasional peek at Slate and the back-of-the-magazine articles of the New Yorker, I’ve totally disconnected.

For TMR’s next visual feature, I’ve been studying the American surrealist photographer Clarence John Laughlin. During the Depression, he took a bank job and then in his thirties when the economy improved he bought a simple camera and taught himself the fundamentals of photography. His all-absorbing passion for photography and books allowed him to fly above the turbulence of the Second World War and the ups and downs of the economy. He lived simply and quietly among his books while his photography kept him from drowning in the “blood-dimmed tide” of history. Laughlin transformed reality into a truer unreality and consequently his images like Yeats’ words continue to haunt us. Both worked in ghostly double exposure and were able to externalize our fears and desires.