Plastic

Sonnet of the Death of the Man who Invented the Plastic Rose - Peter Meinke

The man who invented plastic roses is dead.

Behold his mark: His undying flawless blossoms never close

But guard his grave unbending through the dark.

He understood neither beauty nor flowers.

Which catch our hearts in nets as soft as sky

And bind us with a thread of fragile hours:

Flowers are beautiful because they die.


Beauty without the perishable pulse

Is dry and sterile, an abandoned stage

With false forests. But the results

Support this man's invention; he knew his age:

A vision of our tearless time discloses

Artificial men sniffing plastic roses.

The Sonnet of the Death of the Man who Invented the Plastic Rose was required reading in Dr. Bonnie Lundblad’s English Literature class my first year at Montreat-Anderson College.  There was a lot of other required reading that semester I am sure, but this is the only one that I remember.  Something about the poem connected with me.  I’m sure I liked the irony, I mean, who writes a sonnet on the death of the man who invented the plastic rose?  Who even knows who invented the plastic rose?  He is dead, but his flowers aren’t.  In fact they will never die.  His invention “guard(s) his grave unbending through the dark.”  That’s a great twist in a poem. But it was more than the irony.  

It wasn’t the “flowery” language (see what I did there?) either, although lines 4-6 are amazing.  What a beautiful turn of a phrase.  Beauty and flowers “catch our hearts in nets as soft as sky, And bind us with a thread of fragile hours.”  Mr. Meinke has a gift to be sure.  

Line 7, “Flowers are beautiful because they die” reminds us that there is something about weakness, about the fragile and temporal nature nature of flowers that makes them lovely.  They don’t last forever.  Each glimpse of their beauty is a limited engagement.  In a day or two they will be dried up and wilting, fit only to throw out.  They don’t perform for long, but for some reason that makes their performance even more powerful, more valuable.

He goes on to talk about that very fact.

Beauty without the perishable pulse

Is dry and sterile, an abandoned stage

With false forests.

The perishable pulse…the heartbeat, though limited, that brings life to the flower is what makes it catch our hearts in nets as soft as sky.  All of this poetic language does what it is meant to do.  It pulls aside the curtain and lets us see behind beauty to what it is really made of.  All of this is amazing, and enough to make this poem the success that it is.

But none of this is what changed me that day.  The lines that haunted me as I left the classroom that day, and to some degree almost every day since then were these:

But the results

Support this man's invention; he knew his age:

A vision of our tearless time discloses

Artificial men sniffing plastic roses.

The inventor knew his age.  His age is my age.  The age when practicality and efficiency was more important than something true and deep.  We needed plastic roses because the real ones can’t be depended upon.  That idea, the trading of the real for the practical, struck home with me.  I didn’t want this to describe me.  I didn’t want to be an artificial man, living in a tearless time.  The challenge was I didn’t know how not to be that way.  I was like everyone else around me.  But this poem had kindled in me a desire to be something different.  To live for something real, even though it was short-lived or “perishable”.  

Walter Brueggemann.jpg

Years later I would come in contact with another poet theologian, Walter Bruggemann, who would help me understand what role Peter Meinke was playing in my life.  Bruggemann would write of the role of the prophet, saying that prophets help us to see the present for what it is, to acknowledge what is lacking, and to paint a picture of something more.  In his words, 

The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.... The alternative consciousness to be nurtured, on the one hand, serves to criticize in dismantling the dominant consciousness.... On the other hand, that alternative consciousness to be nurtured serves to energize persons and communities by its promise of another time and situation toward which the community of faith may move.” (Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, Fortress, 1978, p.13.)

What Bruggemann means by that is that the role of the prophet is to point to something different, something solid.  By describing that solid base, the prophet helps us see the weaknesses of what we are currently counting on, and compels us to move forward to something more real and substantial.

Meinke acted as a prophet for me, making me unsatisfied with the world as I knew it, and pushing me forward to seek something more real, more true, more solid.  As the years passed I realized that he was creating in me a greater desire for the Kingdom of God, which is a whole different story in and of itself.  But the gift that this poem gave me was a desire for more than what currently was.  My hope is that it just might do the same for you.  

Jeff KuhnComment