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In the Year 2000
The current number of one of the better magazines in Canada asks a cross-section of smart writers and intellectuals to predict the state of the arts in 25 years. These are nervy folks, not unlike the sort of type-A’s you often find sealed in astronaut suits, tottering forward in slow motion. Facing the future, after all, wants bravery. And every now and then some intrepid soul does get it right – has gotten it right. Here’s the late, great poet and critic Randall Jarrell, on the future he never lived to see:
“Sometimes when I can’t go to sleep at night I see the family of the future. Dressed in three-tone shorts-and-shirt sets of disposable Papersilk, they sit before the television wall of their apartment, only their eyes moving. After I’ve looked a while I always see—otherwise I’d die—a pigheaded soul over in the corner with a book; only his eyes are moving, but in them there is a different look.
“Usually it’s Homer he’s holding—this week it’s Elizabeth Bishop. Her Poems seems to me one of the best books an American poet has ever written: the people of the future (the ones in the corner) will read her just as they will read Dickinson or Whitman or Stevens, or the other classical American poets still alive among us.”
The best science-fiction is merely the stuff that comes true (or comes close enough to our circumstances to be relevant), which permits us to relieve it of the label ‘science-fiction’ and the mild slight sometimes associated with the label. Short of the “Papersilk” and the family, Jarrell’s apartment resembles, with uncanny similitude, the small bachelor of a friend of mine. This is a cell dwarfed by the honeycomb of its larger condo, a cell in which TV is projected onto a wall-size screen (the cell has to be kept dark) and there is no corner to retreat to that is not surrounded by surround sound (reading is usually out of the question).
But Jarrell’s real coup as an amateur futurist is the bang-on prophecy about Bishop’s legacy – no small feat since at the time of Jarrell’s speculation two thirds of Bishop’s poems were cryogenically frozen in North and South, “a book long out of print.”
From time to time on Harriet I’ll be presenting some readings of poems I like. Who’s to say if their authors will come to matter in the future, but soothsaying is fun, so: which contemporary poet do you think Jarrell’s “pigheaded soul” will be reading?