A Poet Critiques Al Gore's Poem
Perhaps I missed something in my laborious journey through the book, but why “September”? A literary reference to Yeats’ great poem, “September 1913,” commemorating those daring revolutionaries with “little time … to pray / For whom the hangman’s rope was spun”? That might make some sense, recalling that our climate saviors are presumably running out of time, but somehow I doubt it’s what Gore had in mind. As for snow that “glides,” this intimates something far different from disaster; rather it reminds me of Fred Astaire gliding over the ballroom floor, merry and festive. Wrong word. Perhaps “slides” or “melts” is what he intended. And Gore certainly is not preoccupied with floods “for a season”; there have always been seasonal floods in many parts of the world without portending a global cataclysm.
The rest of the poem compounds the fiasco. A “hard rain,” as everybody knows, is Bob Dylan’s coinage and refers to nuclear fallout; the phrase is now a cliché. Coming right after the drench of a hard rain, “dirt” could hardly be “parched”; one would expect rivulets of muck and ooze. Why is “kindling placed in the forest” when the forest is kindling? And why should lightning celebrate the destruction of the natural world when it is part of the natural world? Or is it jubilating over our extinction? Whatever. Wrong word again. The creatures who “take their leave” are clearly not “unmourned”; Gore and his multitudinous acolytes have been mourning them interminably for years.
Another slight but irritating point. I will be chided as a stickler here, but it needs to be emphasized that authentic poetry is always consistent. Let us take a look. This is a poem conspicuously devoid of punctuation, yet Gore slips in a comma between “leave” and “unmourned.” A casual reader will not notice so minute a solecism, but genuine poets know that nothing in a finished poem is accidental. Lack of punctuation is a structural device, meant to imply or promote a specific intention, to establish, perhaps, a kind of hypnotic or oracular mood in the reader. It should enter the reading mind seamlessly. In other words, it should not risk calling attention to itself by the inadvertent interpolation of precisely that whose absence is required by the connotative strategy -- unless, obviously, it serves a demonstrable purpose in the overall scheme, which in the present context it manifestly does not. This is not nitpicking or over-fastidiousness. This is how the craft works.
To continue. Given Gore’s conviction that the modern, industrial system is responsible for wreaking havoc on the planet, the “horsemen” who “ready their stirrups” seem better placed in a romantic pastoral or historical vignette, where horsemen have been known to ride their steeds into a lather. Check out Robert Browning’s “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix,” where the determined equestrians “spr[i]ng to the stirrup.” Properly speaking, Gore’s horsemen should be drivers fleeing in their SUVs. “Passion” is an abstraction which poets -- good poets -- learn to eschew in their apprenticeship; the passion we are meant to feel should inhere either in the writing or in concrete, effective embodiments, or both. The shepherd who cries would be more at home in one of Virgil’s eclogues than in a poem treating a contemporary theme -- though Mark Hertsgaard in his fawning commentary on the poem (an “accomplished, nuanced piece of writing”) in Vanity Fair assures us that “it’s usually a mistake to read too much literal meaning into a poem.” But he then proceeds to ask rhetorically: “Is Gore himself the shepherd?” LOL! In any case, the only real, live shepherds I have met and gotten to know ply their trade on remote Greek islands and couldn’t give a hoot about global warming, which they don’t believe in anyway.
In effect, what we are observing is a performance so embarrassing as to make one blush in grudging sympathy for the bumbling pseudo-poet.
Regarding the book itself, it is essentially a rehash of Gore’s previous work, though it does have a modicum of redeeming value: much of the information concerning industrialization, technology, some of the implementation costs, and some government decisions is unexceptionable and worthy of consideration. And, it must be admitted, the photos are impressive. The problem is that the crucial assumptions and theories shimming his global warming thesis are all contestable and largely refuted, but they get lost in the thickening wads of insecure data, the constant downplaying or dismissal of strong rebuttals, and the progressively untenable claims that sandbag his argument. As a result, the book ultimately becomes an exercise in spurious wonkery. Many of its outright lies, clever factoids, subtle inaccuracies, glaring omissions, and sheer howlers are spotlighted in Ed Hiserodt’s compendious review in the New American, which repays consultation. Moreover, Gore’s ignorance of the Lambert-Beer Law, which suggests that radiative forcing of CO2 doubling has been overestimated by a factor of 80, decisively challenges his warnings and must give us further pause. In the last analysis, Gore is what the great historian Jakob Burckhardt rued as a “terrible simplificateur.”
Fortunately, we do have a choice, which is to toss Our Choice into the recycle bin, even if we are $35 out of pocket. The poem itself, however, continues to haunt like a bad dream or a malevolent spook out of Ghost Whisperer. Its significance, as I indicated above, is that it is representative of the Gorean mindset: the sentimentality, the pontifical conceit, the indifference to meaningful detail -- in short, the dearth of acumen and due diligence.
Gore’s solution to the supposed atmospheric crisis and the emitting of pollutants into the sky is simple: “We must sharply reduce what goes up and sharply increase what comes down.” Why not start by banning poems that pollute the mind? Otherwise, to quote once more, it would “be too late to stop the process that we have set in motion.” On the other hand, in this particular instance there is probably no need to worry. The poem comes down of its own accord.
In sum, “One Thin September” is a dreadful piece of unmitigated fustian in every possible respect -- tonal, structural, lexical, semantic, metaphorical -- and should never have seen the light of print. If anyone ever needed fresh evidence for Al Gore’s want of discernment and unstinting self-infatuation, this is it. Those who don’t have the time to wade through 400 pages of largely tendentious argument and special pleading may content themselves by reading the poem. It tells them all they need to know. And the irony is unmistakable. For no matter how reluctantly, we owe him a debt of gratitude for this unintended exhibition.