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[Back to Essays]

On Forgetting Things

Message sent to someone who felt "Lest We Forget" is an unforgiveable piece of mockery and insensitivity:

Thanks for your comment. I think you may be missing something about that poem: It is intended to be more favorable than unfavorable to Reagan. Nor is it intended to mock his illness. Of course, the poem is the poem, and nothing I say here will change the poem for you, unless it's also in the poem, but let me give you my idea of it:

1. Context: Most poets I know are liberal, don't think much of Reagan, consider him sinister or a nice, but stupid person, a fool, a glib jester, etc. I consider this a rather knee-jerk view, suspect Reagan was (like Eisenhower) far brighter than most people think and did some good things. If anything, I'm to the right of him -- tend to vote libertarian. I intended the repeating line (which seems to be ridiculing Reagan) to be a kind of lure for readers with a stereotypical view of Reagan, and a way of working from Reagan's illness to Reagan as president to all the ways in which the rest of us use forgetting to live or to avoid living. Reagan (my departure point) is, in this sense, not so much one who forgets as an instance of our own forgetfulness in various ways. And in fact, our reduction of him to a stereotype is one form of forgetting.

2. My idea was to get at different kinds of forgetting and link them, show that, for example, we are all skilled at forgetting a great deal, and what consequences this has for us. Reagan's current forgetting is one of several (some far more discreditable) shown in the poem. Along the way, while bringing up the usual things associated with Reagan, I point out that his "absurd" economics may have created prosperity and his "stupid" evil-empire antics may have helped end the Cold War, etc.

3. More to the point, the poem is trying to get at the glibness with which we vote, think (politically), ignore, and forget -- WE, not Reagan.

I don't think of Reagan as perfect. In fact, I think he probably did a number of stupid things (not necessarily those of which he is accused and probably no more than most of his successors in the White House). But the poem is not intended to be an attack on Reagan. It's about the way we view politics and politicians. It's about the reader. I can't explain exactly how the hook line ("Ronald Reagan is alive but forgetting things") works, because its role changes from paragraph to paragraph, and I don't know myself all the elements of it. I chose it because it has an odd sort of energy from the clash among its various meanings. For example, when read the poem aloud, sometimes the line seems cruel, sometimes pitying, sometimes referring to Reagan, sometimes to the audience, sometimes funny, sometimes tragic.

For whatever reason, it's one of my most popular poems -- was accepted for publication by New York Quarterly (which however never published another issue since that acceptance), then taken by an anthology and is now in a book of my poems Argyle House has decided to put out. When I perform it, even liberal audiences seem to pick up that it's not meant as a mockery of Alzheimers or an attack on Reagan. Even liberals find it a bit of a relief when what sounds like the usual glibness turns out to demand more of them than cheering on their own side.

Or maybe some of them read it the way you do and like it as mockery. But most who've spoken to me about it have said that it makes them think more than most poetry on politics.

Basically, the key line, "Ronald Reagan is alive but forgetting things" is (as long as he lives) simply a true statement, neither mockery nor praise. What follows it in each section modifies it in one direction or another. The fact that the statement refers to alzheimers (one of its meanings) certainly doesn't make it inappropriate or disqualified for use and repetition in a poem. IF the point of the poem were to mock Ronald Reagan for having alzheimers, then your critique would be correct. In fact, I do APPEAR to do that in a few passages -- and even attack myself (and my listeners) later in the poem for doing that. The poem does begin with a kind of mockery. It gradually changes to something else. The mockery is there for a reason. In a way, it's a booby trap for the reader.

In a way, the energy of the poem is generated by the difficulty of holding apart and yet seeing as related the various dynamics (pity, mockery, respect, mockery of the mockers, etc.) conveyed by that repeated line as it acquires new meanings in the course of the poem.

Just as an example of the kind of tightwire the poem walks, there's a line about Reagan having taught us that we can't tell the difference between a President and a man acting like a President. This begins with the cliched mockery (Reagan's just an actor), but turns it around. The target here is not Reagan, but the fact that the Presidency has become, for us (the voters) a kind of engorged celebrity appearance. There's a bit more to it than that, but basically, it is NOT an attempt to assert the cliche, but to turn it around on ourselves. Reagan, of course, was not JUST an actor. He was an actor who was also a President. And if, as President, he was also playing the ROLE of President, what President -- what SUCCESSFUL President -- does not? And how else could one be President, given a nation of spectators demanding entertainment?

I think, given the above, if you reread the poem, you'll see how it works. If not, then the poem fails for you. But do read it once more.


Dean Blehert

Last updated: December 13, 2004