February 15, 2013KR BlogBlog

“The Centre Cannot Hold”: The (Rise of?) Apocalyptic Writings

As I child, I was fascinated with the biblical concept of The Rapture. As an adult, I don’t know who or what to blame—the hurricanes? The wars? All the disaster movies? But like many writers, I suspect, I may be at work on a manuscript with apocalyptic leanings. And as soon as I became conscious of the theme, I began to notice a bunch of other poets, both established and emerging, with similar leanings.

tumblr_mcrro6Br2a1qbo3a3o1_1280 (Not real.)

I’ve been hearing good things about Traci’s Brimhall’s second book, Our Lady of the Ruins, released last year by W.W. Norton, which follows “a group of women through their pilgrimage in a mid-apocalyptic world.” Also published last year by W.W. Norton, Cathy Park Hong’s newest book, Engine Empire, suggests several kinds of cultural apocalypse: some in the Wild West, and others in an overly-industrialized China. Hong’s book, widely praised, has been described as “an attempt to capture the fervor and spirit of sweeping change, and show that what we call progress, is just prophecy fulfilled.” In terms of anthologies, Apocalypse Now: Poems and Prose from the Ends of Days was released this year. And there are hundreds of recent titles, poetry and prose, with similar concerns. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction (and the film made later on), has haunted many of us in recent years.

Obviously, “apocalyptic” writing isn’t really new. It’s all over the religious scriptures. The literature of the Holocaust is apocalyptic literature. The Modernists were obsessed with their apocalyptic visions (T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, anyone?). In the aftermath of World War I, and with Ireland on the brink of a civil war, William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming,” alluding to Europe’s current precariousness. The opening of the poem is well known:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

 Back in 2007, in a New York Times opinion piece, Adam Cohen refers to Yeats’s “The Second Coming” as “the official poem of the Iraq War.” Meditating on the poem’s final lines, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Cohen concludes:

 “The Second Coming” is a powerful brief against punditry. The Christian era was about the ability to predict the future: the New Testament clearly foretold the second coming of Christ. In the post-Christian era of which Yeats was writing there was no Bible to map out what the next “coming” would be. The world would have to look toward Bethlehem to see what “rough beast” arrived.

This skepticism about predicting the future has more relevance to the Iraq war than any of the poem’s much-quoted first eight lines. The story of the Iraq war is one of confident predictions that never came to pass: “We will find weapons of mass destruction”; “we will be greeted as liberators”; “the insurgency is in its last throes.”

 If I had to guess as to what might be pushing us to write “apocalyptically” now, war and corruption are still possible answers. For me, however, the biggest seed is global warming and climate change. As I described last summer in my post in honor of The Silent Spring’s 50th anniversary, 2012 was essentially the warmest year on record, and many questions in regards to energy usage, water/land management, and pollution loom large in much of what many of us are writing. (The years I lived in the coal-mining, heavily-polluted Shanxi Province in northern China marked the beginning of environmental consciousness in my poems.) There have also been the most recent storms, and it’s much too soon to forget 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst environmental and cultural disasters of all time. Literary accounts of Katrina are too numbered to account for here, but many of have read Jessamyn Ward’s National Book Award-winning novel, Salvage the Bones.

At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly or dramatic, it seems that both nationally and globally we’re moving towards—or arguably, we’re already inside?—some truly precarious times. Perhaps we want to write the apocalypse because we are, in one sense, living in its era, or at least in the era of its possibility. As the poet Traci Brimhall recently said in an interview with The American Literary Review, when asked about “the end of the world” as it is written in her book: “I suppose I think the apocalypse is the present, or what the present would feel like if we could feel all of history at once.”