Yesterday I was asked my opinion of a poem. That doesn’t happen very often, indeed I don’t think about poetry very often. But there I was trying to figure out what these sixteen or so lines might be about or at least trying to think what I could actually say about the poem. It was a poem about not giving up, in many ways a literary version of the picture where the frog is trying to strangle the pelican while in the pelican’s mouth. I didn’t like the poem but it took me some time to figure out why I really loathed it.
It wasn’t the poem itself that annoyed me, nor the general superciliousness of poetic discourse, nor the modernist affectations that lay at its heart. What bugged me was the starting assumption that we need to be reminded that we shouldn’t give up. The tone of the piece was something of a gee-up, a call to arms of one kind or another, like Ellen DeGeneres’ Dory singing “just keep swimming” in Finding Nemo.
What’s objectionable about that? For me the thing is that to keep on keeping on is in fact the default operating system for almost everyone. The endless keeping on stays well below the radar, mostly we don’t even notice we do it. Indefatigability is the practice of everyday life: at work, at home, at play. We just keep on keeping on and don’t ever think enough of it. We do not value our own endurance.
But we should, really we need to. Only when it somehow fails to occur or we can’t manage to make it happen do we stop to think about how fantastic it is that we made it out of bed yesterday and got ourselves to the bus stop. We never congratulate ourselves on how plainly courageous, how close to indestructible, how magnificently efficent we really are.
Long ago, on the slopes of Mount Ventoux, British cyclist Tom Simpson said “put me back on my bike” and then he died. The disturbing resonance of this is that it was only his stopping and dying that revealed how awesomely brave and audacious he was in the hours before he died. Keeping on, not dying, wouldn’t have said anything at all. Nowadays there are monuments and celebrations of Tom Simpson: people pay homage to his courage and audacity.
There are no monuments for me and you. For me and you there is no moment when the courage and audacity required to keep on keeping on is recognised, or celebrated. But it should be, we should be having ticker tape parades about ourselves, everyday probably, about how fantastic it is that we did what we had to do and how we kept on keeping on.