What’s Wrong with “Dead Poets”

The 1989 film starring Robin Williams won a fair raft of awards (as a jot of Google research shows), and I presume it was recieved as an evocative defense of poetry. It is perhaps more properly a defense of acting.

The film well excoriated the driest and stodgiest scholars of poetry, and not as an invented nemisis but a real type. That type has no business teaching poetry or anything else; but such people exist, and one does not wish to be found among them, so one’s sympathies slide toward Williams et al.

Alas that Williams’ character cannot think of any better ennervation for poetry than tearing pages out of books and running around in circles. It was a nice piece of protest activism, but like all such activities the mountain of action buried the prick of the point. Carpe diem quoth Williams, employing the Profound Whisper, and thereby captured the imagination of the modern audience; but, you see, the moderns have no poets.

Carpe diem is not the motto of poetry, and most brilliantly misses the point of all poetry. The “great poets” all realize that one cannot sieze the day any more than one can sieze the moonshine. Melancholy for the day that cannot be held pervades poetry. Even Wordsworth, forever extolling the perfect moment, sings forever of the day not kept, for how few of us read his lines amidst rills & moors & cliffs & don’t forget the sunshine! And when we come to such places, we discover that Wordsworth left out the mosquitoes, because their contribution would never scan.

Everything a poem can ever evoke comes out of the past, for the present is never evoked. Notwithstanding, there may be poems or ryhmes which can fairly carry the carping motto of the moment; but they never make it to any healthy classification of great poetry, any more than the knock-knock joke.

Poetry is not appreciated by standing on one’s desk. Do you want to see the power of poetry? Look to the one in some mundane posture, moving not; his mind has sped beyond the capacity of his flesh, and even his darting gaze is transfixed.