Friday, April 12, 2019

Can Kurt Vonnegut be the Poet for the Nones?

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. with coffee and bear.

In previous generations those who harbored doubts and reservations about organized religion—we called them Free Thinkers and Humanists—were often drawn to atheism.  And the Millennials come of age when just as the New Atheists—mostly Boomers and Gen Xers—are making a lot of noise and attracting attention.  Some, of course, will, join in the crusade that not only refutes God, but makes war upon myth and mocks believers.   But most find the New Atheists bitter, overzealous, and the flip side of the coin to fundamentalists refusing any dialogue or giving any quarter in a religious war.

The Nones of this generation are less cocksure and more respectful of a variety of opinion and expression, universalists with a small u.  They favor a kinder, gentler humanism that leaves rooms for wonder and awe—think Carl Sagan and the current rock star Neil deGrasse Tyson.  They also look to a humanism with a giving heart and warm concern for humanity.

Just who might be the poet for these folks?  If they haven’t discovered him on their own, I might point out Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

“I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over.  Out on the edge you see all kind of things you can’t see from the center.”Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was born on Armistice Day, November 11, 1922 in Indianapolis, Indiana. He would go on to become a veteran of another war and the experience shaped him as a human being and one of the great iconoclasts of his time.

His death on April 11, 2007 at the age of 84 was, as he predicted, not an emphatic period at the end of a long life, but a mere semi-colon (he despised semi-colons.)  He died of a brain injury sustained after slipping and falling on the steps of his Manhattan apartment several days earlier.  It was the kind of comic, anti-heroic departure he could have written himself.
Vonnegut in later life used variations of this to illustrate his books and to sign letters and autographs.


From a Letter to Knox Burger, 1961

Two little good girls
Watchful and wise —
Clever little hands
And big kind eyes —
Look for signs that the world is good,
Comport themselves as good folk should.
They wonder at a father
Who is sad and funny strong,
And they wonder at a mother
Like a childhood song.
And what, and what
Do the two think of?
Of the sun
And the moon
And the earth
And love.

—Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.


“When the last living thing
Has died on account of us,
How poetical it would be
If Earth could say,
In a voice floating up
From the floor
Of the Grand Canyon,
‘It is done.’
People did not like it here.”

—Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

And Vonnegut even left explicit advice to aspiring scribblers everywhere.

Vonnegut’s Eight Rules for Writing

  • Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  • Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  • Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  • Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
  • Start as close to the end as possible.
  • Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the audience may see what they are made of.
  • Perform to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  • Give your audience as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Audience should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the bottom of the page.

—Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

And so it goes.

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