With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Why does someone who takes the name Buffalo Vision, for example,
after his weekend ayahuasca workshop
always seem to have an unwarranted confidence
that he is going to end up at the Happy Hunting Ground?
If Eagle Mountain marries Western River Woman — fine.
But why do they have to name their daughter Blueberry, or Lake?
Then they send her to suffer at a Waldorf school
where she majors in birch bark and folk dance
and years later has to hire a life coach to help her fill out college applications,
as she painstakingly writes an autobiographical essay
on the theme of how certain so-called sentient beings
can inflict their embarrassing illusions upon another.
Do you get what I’m talking about?
About the follies of playing at innocence?
Walt Disney made some good movies,
but would you really get ten aphoristic sayings from The Lion King
tattooed on your forearm for practical reference
as you ship out to Iraq?
Which brings me to my actual subject, a man I will call Steve,
whom I met at a rest stop right after his second vision quest;
who wore a feather in his hat, was fifty-five, well-fed,
and lived with his mom in Carson City; who
plays his guitar at open mikes and plans on a serious musical career
as soon as he gets more experience.
Steve, who prefers to be called by his true name, Iron Bear.
Whenever I encounter the New Age still in its original diapers,
I confess that I blush down to my deepest roots,
for I, too, am its scornful, not entirely grown-up child.
When I was twenty, I learned to play “Blowin’ in the Wind” on a wooden flute;
I made bracelets out of wire and polished quartz and gave them away;
I had a girlfriend who freely expressed her opinion
that people born in Bangladesh had probably incarnated there
to work out their issues with poverty.
Why does the New Age seem so often like a patient in intensive care,
in a delicate condition, requiring giant infusions of illusion
and charity to stay alive,
while the rest of us keep waiting for the day it might get tough enough
to be successfully transplanted into the real world?
Getting back to Steve, still living with his mom, on an allowance, in Carson City:
Nothing can stop him
from going to the open mike every Thursday night and singing his heart out,
or from signing his letters Blessings, from Iron Bear, Poet and Seer, aka Steve.
Pretend for a moment that you are a philanthropist whom I am
asking for a donation to a charitable program
to rehabilitate wandering middle-aged children like the ones I am describing.
What funds can you offer? What advice might you have for me?
What chance do you think there is for Steve to ever grow up,
much less to find a happy ending?
On the other hand, isn’t it some kind of ultimate foolishness
to scold cheerful people who in their way are the pilgrims of our time
about the folly of their happiness?
What kind of folly is that?
On the way to the wedding of his friend, his car struck a dog, and he had no time to stop,
but he’s a good person.
She’s a good person who wrote a fantastic essay from a young man’s point of view for her
son’s college application.
He’s a guy with a few million dollars whose condo on a Caribbean island I have been invited
to enjoy. I have a strong intuition that he’s a good person.
She likes to say that everything happens for a reason — that’s how you can tell
that she’s a good person.
He’s a good person, though you would not want to be stuck with him
in a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean,
or to be a member of his immediate family,
or to be anywhere around him when he is drinking.
He was a good person who, through a sequence of unfortunate circumstances,
found himself in a Nazi uniform in 1943, working the front gate at Bergen-Belsen.
She’s a good person: if, in the future, it finally becomes legal to eat poor people
and you can buy inexpensive cuts of meat in the local store’s glass
refrigerated cases, even if this becomes a very popular practice,
she would find a way to politely decline the opportunity.
I know a carrot from a stick;
I can tell the difference between a violin and a box of cockroach poison;
I know a moonlit tide from a bad allergic reaction;
I know a quiet spiritual opening from an act of self-lubrication;
but would I really recognize a good person if I met one?
He goes on talking and talking, and after a while
you realize that there may be a good person hidden somewhere deep inside him,
slowly evolving like a fetus inside a lizard.
In the meantime, we have to deal with the other person —
that’s the person we have to keep our eye on;
that’s the one we need to give our full attention.
the poetry of Keats,
Kathleen’s big beautiful face,
and The Communist Manifesto
— these are all pain relievers.
Death from cancer of the mouth
of the tyrant Joseph McCarthy;
the blue crow gliding over the arroyo, cawing;
the baby taking the lima bean from his mouth
and pushing it between the lips of his mother
— these are examples of justice.
The moment when you step away from the party;
the sound of the eighty-foot spruce tree, creaking;
the hour in the waning afternoon
when the attorney stands beside her car,
removes her sunglasses, and looks up at the sky
— these are examples of remembering.
The metaphor that makes you laugh out loud.
The warm breast of the dental hygienist
pressed against your ear
as she leans to get access to your plaque.
The dream in which you find yourself at sea,
at night, with water under you so deep
you weep with fear. And yet the darkness
does not take you into it
— these are examples of fortune.
It’s great that the Waldorf schools have such ardent defenders — and that they are Sun readers, too. As a university instructor, I’ve taught Waldorf graduates who have been exceptionally cultivated people, so I freely acknowledge my libel. Waldorf was collateral damage in my mocking interrogation of New Age pretensions because “Waldorf” has a delightful phonetic quality I couldn’t resist. Playfulness is one of the pleasures of art, after all, and a poem is not a newspaper.
I hate saying the obvious, but just this once I will: no one should base his or her opinion of Waldorf schools on my poem.
P.S. Is it true the teachers hula-dance at graduation?
Tony Hoagland’s absolutely right when he confesses that he is a “scornful, not entirely grown-up child” of the New Age. As a new subscriber, I hope that misinformed stereotypes, such as those Hoagland trots out in this and other poems, are not typical of the magazine’s editorial judgment.
Hoagland’s mockery of those who use cultural appropriation in the name of self-realization may be justified, but his superior tone is belied by his lack of information. Waldorf students often study folk dance and woodworking, but they do so along with physics and algebra. Waldorf’s emphasis on critical thinking, problem-solving, and self-expression helps its graduates to be successful college applicants and responsible adults. I suggest Hoagland do a little homework before conflating a worldwide independent-school movement with a term like “New Age.”
I get what Tony Hoagland’s talking about in his poem “Ten Questions for the New Age” [October 2015]; it’s frustrating when you meet head-on with somebody who lives in La-La Land. But his reference to Waldorf education implies something that simply isn’t true.
Nobody “suffers” at a Waldorf school. Children are engaged, active, and creative. Their academic and arts studies are rigorous, and they are taught skills like forging metal, weaving, and woodcarving. The schools encourage participation in real life — in contrast to the “real world” Hoagland refers to, which has robbed us of our humanity in many ways. Children learn that humanity is good and that people can get along with one another. These students will grow up to create the change they want to see, because they believe it’s possible.
Under all his disparaging remarks, I suspect Hoagland is disappointed, like the rest of us, that the world is such a mess. But let’s go after the real enemy, which, I assure you, is neither New Age people nor Waldorf education.