Remember Sputnik and piano lessons? Bongo drums and beatniks?
In the fifties people who were smart
And looked smart were called eggheads.
Adlai Stevenson, who was bald and went to Princeton,
Was the quintessential egghead, and so he lost
To Dwight Eisenhower, the president of Columbia.
Dave Brubeck was an egghead, with his horn-rimmed
Glasses and all those albums of jazz at colleges,
Though on NPR last week he claimed he wasn’t smart.
I took piano lessons from his brother Howard
In the Thearle Music Building in San Diego in the fifties,
Which probably would have made me an egghead by contagion
If it hadn’t been for Sputnik, which made being smart
Fashionable for a while (as long as you didn’t look smart).
Beatniks weren’t eggheads: eggheads were uptight
And buttoned down, wore black shoes instead of sandals
And didn’t play bongo drums or read poetry in coffee houses.
What sent me on this memory trip was the realization
That stupidity was in style again, in style with a vengeance—
Not that it was ever out of style, or confined to politics
(“We need more show and less tell,” wrote an editor of Poetry
About a poem of mine that he considered too abstract).
The new stupidity doesn’t have a name or a characteristic look,
And it’s not just in style, it is a style, a style of seeing everything as style,
Like Diesel jeans, or glasses and t-shirts, or a way of talking on TV:
Art as style, science as a style, and intelligence as a style too,
Perhaps the egghead style without the smarts. It’s politics
Where stupidity and style combine to form the perfect storm,
As a host of stylized, earnest airheads emerge from the greenrooms
Of the Sunday morning talk shows, mouthing talking points
In chorus, playing their parts with panache and glowing with the glow
You get from a fact-free diet, urged on by a diminutive senator
Resembling a small, furious gerbil. If consistency is the hobgoblin
Of little minds, these minds are enormous, like enormous rooms.
It wasn’t always like this. Maybe it wasn’t much better,
But I used to like politics. I used to like arguing with Paul Arnson
On the Luther League bus, whatever it was we argued about.
It was more like a pastime, since if things were only getting better
Incrementally, at least they weren’t steadily getting worse:
Politicians put their heads together when they had to, Fredric March
And Franchot tone gave their speeches about democracy and shared values
In Seven Days in May and Advise and Consent, and we muddled through.
Everett Dirksen, Jacob Javits, Charles Percy—remember them?
They weren’t eggheads or Democrats (let alone beatniks), yet they could
Talk to eggheads and Democrats (i’m not sure about beatniks),
And sometimes even agreed with them. It was such an innocent time,
Even if it didn’t seem particularly innocent at the time, yet a time
That sowed the seeds of its own undoing. I used to listen to the radio,
Curious as to what the right was on about now, but i’m not curious anymore,
Just apprehensive about the future. I’d rather listen to “Take Five”
Or watch another movie, secure in the remembrance of my own complacency,
The complacency of an age that everyone thought would last forever
—As indeed it has, but only in the imagination of a past that feels fainter
And fainter as I write, more and more distant from a bedroom where I lie awake
Remembering Sputnik and piano lessons, bongo drums and beatniks, quaint
Old-fashioned Republicans and Democrats and those eggheads of yore.
Poem ©2012 John Koethe, all rights reserved. Used by permission of the author and publisher Harper Collins. Film ©2014 Motionpoems, Inc., all rights reserved.