All culture is pretentious, humans pretending to be something other than what they are, animals driven by instinct to live in groups, procreate, protect and edify their young and one another, and write poems about the experience.
Poetry is the most important aspect of culture. Through poems the great pretenders pass on the psyche of the tribe – the human social group. The tribe is always in motion, and its poetry moves with it, leaving fossils – preserved impressions. Poetry animates the culture’s pretentions by illustrating conflicts among tribal members and the tensions created by individual consciousness and the collective consciousness of the tribe.
Poetry then is the most pretentious of human acts, the most basic of masks. The poet is naked save the mask. Imagine sitting at home writing a poem while your father spends the day working in a coal mine. That is what D. H. Lawrence did. And in the film “Il Postino” (1994), Pablo Neruda is seen sublimating his desire for culture with a poetic tribute to a miner:
When I was a senator of the republic I went to visit the pampas, a region where it only rains once every fifty years, where life is unimaginably hard. I wanted to meet the people who had voted for me. One day at Lota there was a man who had come up from a coal mine. He was a mask of coal dust and sweat, his face contorted by terrible hardship, his eyes red from the dust. He stretched out his calloused hand and said: “Wherever you go, speak of this torment. Speak of your brother who lives underground in hell.” I felt I had to write something to help man in his struggle, to write the poetry of the mistreated. That’s how “Canto General” came about. Now my comrades tell me they have managed to get it published secretly in Chile and it’s selling like hot cakes. That makes me very happy.from the film “Il Postino” (1994)
Much poetry does not fossilize. It’s not pretentious enough. The poet is a vagabond who strays from the tribe, or is exiled from the tribe for breaking cultural rules. Yet the poet is indispensable to the spirit of the human social group, even as that group ostracises and diminishes the poet through sarcasm and accusations.
Brazilian poet and diplomat Vinicius de Moraes wrote a poem titled “The Worker in Construction.” This poem reminds me of my father, a midcentury new construction journeyman plumber. And I am reminded not only of my father, but of my own poetic masks and other pretentions.