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I’ve treasured this poem ever since I first read it as a freshman in college. It appealed to this then late-60s kid as a brilliant send-up of American consumerism ‘50s style, a consumerism we had kicked for sure. Only it turned out we were upgrading it in hipper style.
The poem still strikes home today, though with a twist. Four years out, the backwash of the Great Recession has turned for many people into a slough of despond from which no exit appears imminent. The poem’s picture of absurd prosperity might trigger a wistful thought for a second, a yes-but, until we remind ourselves that we know better, that the postwar boom was all hollow and misbegotten. Wasn’t it?
Or is that an impression only the materially comfortable can draw? Think of an alternative ode, written on this Black Friday 2012. Would its images be more poignant, its tones more sad than sardonic, amid persisting high unemployment? Might it skewer the feints and blather of high rollers playing fiscal-cliff politics, their own safety net quite secure, thank you very much? How would it register the spiritual costs of faded economic dreams, of uncertainty, of straitened prospects enfolding whole regions and generations?
Maybe such thoughts mix into the undertone we’ll hear this year while watching news footage of the Stampede at the Big Box, that pilgrimage on hyper-speed which opens America’s truly holy season. How to capture so jaded a frenzy? Here’s the original to give inspiration, complete with the poet’s original headnote.
BOOM!, by Howard Nemerov
SEES BOOM IN RELIGION, TOO
Atlantic City, June 23, 1957 (AP) – President Eisenhower’s pastor said tonight that Americans are living in a period of “unprecedented religious activity” caused partially by paid vacations, the eight-hour day and modern conveniences.
“These fruits of material progress,” said the Rev. Edward L. R. Elson of the National Presbyterian Church, Washington, “have provided the leisure, the energy, and the means for a level of human and spiritual values never before reached.”
Here at the Vespasian-Carlton, it’s just one
religious activity after another; the sky
is constantly being crossed by cruciform
airplanes, in which nobody disbelieves
for a second, and the tide, the tide
of spiritual progress and prosperity
miraculously keeps rising, to a level
never before attained. The churches are full,
the beaches are full, and the filling-stations
are full. God’s great ocean is full
of paid vacationers praying an eight-hour day
to the human and spiritual values, the fruits,
the leisure, the energy, and the means, Lord,
the means for the level, the unprecedented level
and the modern conveniences, which also are full.
Never before, O Lord, have the prayers and praises
from belfry and phonebooth, from ballpark and barbecue
the sacrifices, so endlessly ascended.
It was not thus when Job in Palestine
sat in the dust and cried, cried bitterly;
when Damien kissed the lepers on their wounds
it was not thus; it was not thus
when Francis worked a fourteen-hour day
strictly for the birds; when Dante took
a week’s vacation without pay and it rained
part of the time, O Lord, it was not thus.
But now the gears mesh and the tires burn
and the ice chatters in the shaker and the priest
in the pulpit, and thy Name, O Lord,
is kept before the public, while the fruits
ripen and religion booms and the level rises
and every modern convenience runneth over,
that it may never be with us as it hath been
with Athens and Karnak and Nagasaki,
nor Thy sun for one instant refrain from shining
on the rainbow Buick by the breezeway
or the Chris Craft with the uplift life raft;
that we may continue to be the just folks we are,
plain people with ordinary superliners and
disposable diaperliners, people of the stop’n’shop
‘n’pray as you go, of hotel, motel, boatel,
the humble pilgrims of no deposit no return
and please adjust thy clothing, who will give to Thee
if Thee keep us going, our annual
Miss Universe, for Thy Name’s Sake, Amen.
– Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) was an American poet and professor of English. His Collected Poems (University of Chicago Press, 1977), from which this poem is taken (pp. 222-23), received the Bollingen Prize and both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for poetry.