Thursday, January 27, 2011

College Students (way back) Then and Now

I remember the first college literary journal I ever saw. One of my friends brought it to me from Kenyon College. I was in high school. I opened it up to a poem about being drunk and thinking you were Jesus Christ. It was one of the milder poems.

I thought about that journal today when I opened up The Poets of the Future, a college literary anthology from 1917-1918.

"The stars are close tonight,/ Thoughts in the book of time; / Yet veiled unto my sight / The page sublime," a Dartmouth student wrote.

An Amherst gentleman said what he had to say in six lines: "Philosophy! A game, no more; yet such / As dwarfs all other games to nothingness, / That plays with aeons in its daring touch, / With stars for pawns, infinity to span. / Philosophy! A game for gods, no less, / That leaves man beaten, but a greater man."

Women were represented, of course, too. Here are a few lines from a somewhat self-absorbed Connecticut College student: "When clouds pass over the moon, / A thousand lurking shadows leer, / A thousand black-faced shadows peer, / From behind the trees and beside the wall and across the snow, / At me."

How did we change so much in 100 years? These poems are presumably what the students wanted to write. They were deservedly proud of them. I can't imagine one of these poems being accepted in one of today's college-sponsored literary journals. The language, the subjects........and I'm not even getting into the poems in this book that are so wildly politically incorrect that my eyes just skimmed the words in discomfort.

Well, that change--the change involving political correctness--I can understand. I witnessed the evolution of that sort of thing. But how did flowery, romantic language, once held in high esteem, reach a point of such disfavor? We don't have to go back 100 years, actually. Consider the lyrics of the hit songs of the 1950s. Could today's teens possibly embrace "Love is a Many Splendored Thing.....it's the April rose that only grows in the early spring" (1955)?

Or "Love and Marriage, love and marriage, go together like a horse and carriage" (1955)? Or how about "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, That's Amore" (1953)? There are better examples—I know this because the thought occurs to me often when I hear music from this period. It just doesn't seem within the realm of possibility that today's kids could find anything to relate to in those songs. Why is that? We're still human beings, with the same feelings, aren't we? Or are we evolving as a species more rapidly than I can comprehend?

I used to observe car-crazy young males and wonder what boys their age did in all those generations before the automobile was invented. I suppose the answer to that is they all lusted after bigger and faster horses.

By the way, guess which Yale University student is on p. 82.......Stephen Vincent Benet. "Poets of the Future" indeed.

11 comments:

crystal said...

I've noticed when I'm looking for poems online how different the contemporary oes often are, like the ones at Slate magazine, from older ones by Algernon Charles Swinburne or Rupert Brooke.

I like that poem about philosophy :)

Maybe there's hope for us all though. People still appreciate ancient and medieval poetry - maybe we just have to wait until stuff gets really old and really different before it becomes interesting again?

Susan said...

Crystal, a college professor friend told me he came across a book of poetry from 1912 and was surprised at how many of the poets in the book have been totally forgotten.

Have you thought about writing an informal memoir to leave behind for the generations after us? I think it would be a worthwhile project.

crystal said...

A memoir of my life? Hee hee - I can't imagine anyone would want to ead it :) Your's would be really interesting, though. You've really done a lot of diverse things.

Susan said...

Yes, it's true that I have a lack of focus. :-)

But it's not just about things we've done; it's about the world we grew up in, and lived in, and what we saw and how we reacted. Consider the priceless diaries kept by women (it was always the women) crossing the country in covered wagons, for instance. They recorded things that were so meaningful to ensuing generations.

Think about it, Crystal. You're an excellent writer.

Indigo Bunting said...

Human evolution through poetry: a fascinating concept.

Love this post.

crystal said...

:)

Helen said...

Hey, maybe we're the product of a great evolutionary leap, yet are too stupid to realize it. Until this post... good one Susan.

(And lusting after bigger and better horses... HA!)

crystal said...

Susan, have you seen this doggy video? :) ... http://povcrystal.blogspot.com/2011/01/way-i-am.html

Eulalia (Lali) Benejam Cobb said...

Part of the difference may be due to the literature those early 20th century would-be poets were saturated with--the ancients (often in the original, as Latin and Greek were required in many schools), the classics, the Romantics...all of it stuff that not many contemporary college students read anymore.

Dolly Paolucci said...

Hm, bigger and faster horses sound about right. Haha, but seriously, college (and college students) is way different now compared to before. We have the internet now and there are even online courses. But the students still have a ton of work to do and sometimes they have a lot to cram with so little time. Perhaps it was like that back then as well - a few things change, while some stay the same.

Dolly Paolucci said...

Hm, bigger and faster horses sound about right. Haha, but seriously, college (and college students) is way different now compared to before. We have the internet now and there are even online courses. But the students still have a ton of work to do and sometimes they have a lot to cram with so little time. Perhaps it was like that back then as well - a few things change, while some stay the same.