Slow Time

2005-06-01

The other day, Uche argued for the continued relevance -- indeed, the increased importance -- of poetry in today's fast-paced times, since the concentrated and often difficult nature of poetic language forces the reader to slow down. Yet (as Uche knows) it is more than just diction: it is also the meter (or, more broadly, the rhythm) that induces a kind of slow time when one reads a poem. Poetry is a temporal art in much the same way music is -- and in one respect, a poem enforces slow time even more viscerally than a piece of music does because usually you perform the poem (by reading it silently or aloud to yourself) rather than having it performed for you at a poetry reading or by means of a recording. The post-modernists would call this co-creating the work, and for once they would be right!

One likely theory about the emergence of the arts (advanced for example by Ellen Dissanayake) is that human life started to become more complex around 30,000 years ago -- population densities increased, human bands started to interact more often and in more challenging ways with other groups, long-distance trade began to emerge as a key human pursuit, technology (such as it was) improved faster, and so on (sound familiar?). In the face of that increased pace of change and before the emergence of writing, humans needed something to direct attention to important life lessons and improve coherence across larger groups of people. Dissanayake calls this "making special". Poetry, music, paintings (as in European caves), and other forms of patterned representation emerged as ways to structure information; some of the resulting art-forms also structured time in significant ways, slowing it down and making time, too, into something special. While there can be complexity in poetic language or musical formalism, I think the key to these art-forms is not that complexity per se but the fact that their linguistic or musical materials are different from what we normally experience -- and different in ways that set them apart from humdrum existence.

Does the slow time of poetic experience have special meaning today? As Uche observes and everyone knows first-hand, life is getting faster and faster. We live in a culture of immediate gratification, sounds bites, the latest news, instant messaging (because email just isn't fast enough -- mea culpa!), continuous partial attention, and what Stuart Brand calls fashion (not clothing styles, but the ever-churning monthly and weekly and daily and hourly changes in what's cool, hot, new, interesting, and different). In contrast to that culture, the slow time of poetic experience induces reflection and introspection -- slowing, pausing, stopping, puzzling, treading, absorbing, and eventually delighting in the meaning of difficult words, fresh metaphors, strange word orders, odd grammatical constructions, assonance, alliteration, rhyme, meter, and all the other tricks of the poetic trade.

In that pursuit of slow time, I find nothing as valuable as new poetry. While I love to read old and even ancient poetry (my favorites being Horace and Sappho), poems by authors from the last hundred years (my favorites include Langston Hughes, Walter Kaufmann, and Timothy Steele) often speak to me more deeply because their language and concerns are more naturally my own. Unfortunately, too many poets of the last hundred years thought it was perfectly acceptable to write poems without much form or difficulty -- what Robert Frost called the equivalent of tennis without a net. Yet it is precisely form (meter) and that sense of something familiar yet different and special that induces poetic "slow time". Thankfully, more and more poets are rediscovering their craft and the roots of their art, with the result that they are again making something special.

Here's to new poetry!


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