Around nineteen-sixty-one or two, I showed one of my poems (I was very young, and still wrote poetry) to Mr. Grant, a favorite teacher—a man who mentored me long after I had been just one of his many pupils. He was, himself, a poet, and I respected his opinion over all others.
I no longer remember much about the poem, but I recall that I had used “neon” as a metaphor for something ineffably beautiful. I was stunned when he told me I needed to change that specific word. He said it was wrong, that it sent the wrong message because it had such negative connotations.
At the time I couldn’t understand his objection.
For me, “neon” suggested glowing brilliance, the sort of thing that turns urban wet pavements, at night, into magical vistas, replacing the mundane horizontality of the daytime world into a maelstrom of swirling color, one that is limited by neither top nor bottom, but simply is, in omnipresent glory.
For him, the word had only one meaning: “tawdry.”
I know, now, why he felt that way: he grew up in a different time, in a different cultural context. Our conversation was an example of generational language differences.
Imagine a confrontation between a painter of the Ashcan School and a Pop artist. Both look at the ordinary world, and portray it as they see it—but they see it through very different eyes. One wants to reveal the squalor of ordinary life, while the other celebrates the sheer exuberance of it. Both, in effect, preach to the art-buying intelligentsia, the sort of people who don’t live in anything like the worlds they paint—but their sermons couldn’t be more different. Warhol might understand the Glackens' point-of-view—intellectually, if not viscerally—but Glackens would be mystified by Warhol.
Jacob Riis spoke to one generation, Tom Wolfe to the other. The city of one smelled of stale cabbage and trash, the other of incense and hashish.
I was still writing in the JFK era—before my generation had found its modus operandi—but the language we would eventually need was already evolving. Before the decade was out “neon,” and all it implied to the adolescent me, would epitomize the very spirit of the psychedelic generation.
I hadn’t understood Mr. Grant’s objection because I didn’t realize that we weren’t speaking the same language. Dylan had not yet written “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” but they already were. Will this be a lesson we will apply in trying to communicate with the next generations?
It seems unlikely.