Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Bullet of Information & the Lag of the Soul

The compression of space/time that is the essence of modern life both excites and threatens our slow souls. New technologies of information and mobility enable our lives to be sutured closer together, but in ways that are more voyeuristic than "proved upon the pulses," to echo Keats.

Every day I get an email alert from various progressive activist engines, asking me to sign on to avert the latest apocalypse--the worldwide collapse of bee populations due to pesticides, the latest death of a nonviolent Palestinian activist Jawaher Abu Ramah from American-made tear gas, the "corrective rapes" of South African lesbian women, the ongoing tragedies in coal mines, the politically-motivated arrest of Julian Assange for sexual assault and the ongoing revelations of WikiLeaks, the shooting yesterday of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona--and I sign on, do my little clicks, another ant in the digitized colony ticking through the day, hoisting my little weight.

All of this is happening almost too quickly to digest fully. More and more, dealing with this speed of information is among the greatest challenges facing artists and intellectuals today. We hardly have time to think or feel when "the story" has changed.

I once related to a former teacher, the poet Catherine Bowman, that I had only just begun to write about something, and it was already seven years ago. Half-joking, half-serious, she said that a New Age guru once told her that our souls lag seven years behind the present moment.

That always seemed about right to me, poetically speaking, but that doesn't help us cope with the terrible news of the present. An activist fighting a battle, or a poet writing about a particular event, that's seven years old, comes to resemble an old guy still angry about being jilted by Sue Daley in high school. (Cue eye-roll.)

This dilemma is partly why I've been so intrigued by the employment of documentary methods in poetry and the arts, and of the use of Google to take the temperature of the people's Internet (cf. Flarf).

In the face of such bruising trauma and grinding daily tragedy, perhaps the challenge of the artist--not just the literal artists, but the creators and curators of the soul that we are--is not simply to chronicle and attend to the present, but to achieve a stillness. D.H. Lawrence once wrote, "One’s action ought to come out of an achieved stillness: not to be mere rushing on."

We cannot outrun these bullets. We can name the manufacturers of hate, their trigger-men, but then we are only part way. We haven't quite stayed in the lag, and stayed the confusion (cf. Frost, "momentary stay against confusion").

Achieving a stillness is no small task, and one at odds with the rush in us (we are both rush and lag). Yet if we can, we might find our way to something like joy--that state of serenity in times of tumult, and in moments of beauty, delight.

Philip Metres, 2011.


Lyle Daggett said...

The poet Muriel Rukeyser, in her book The Life of Poetry, said that the essential difference between art and entertainment (and I'm paraphrasing slightly here) is that art tries to get us to concentrate on what it's bringing to us, and entertainment tries to distract us from what it's not bringing to us.

Whether writing about something that happened in the world today or yesterday, or writing about a seven-year range of events and the ideas that emerge from them, it seems to me that concentration is as important an element as stillness.

Concentration can be as difficult to achieve as stillness, and (as you've elaborated here) the constant rapid flurry of information in the modern world works against both.

Poet Thomas McGrath conceived of a couple of kinds of poems, which he called "tactical" and "strategic." A tactical poem, as he used the term, might be a poem written in response to a specific event, such as a poem against the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or against Arizona's anti-immigrant laws. A strategic poem, as he defined it, might be a poem describing daily life in a neighborhood where martial law has been declared, or a week in the life of a person working at Wal-Mart for minimum wage, or maybe an allegorical poem in which members of the current government are protrayed as figures from Greek or Sumerian mythology.

These are just examples, and didn't define the types of poetry rigidly or as exclusive of each other, and I don't insist on McGrath's distinction.

I think it can be useful to recognize that when writing something in response to an immediate event, some of the "rules" might be different than for a poem that approaches from a slower or longer view, and I think that's valid. Poetry should be, among other things, useful, and that may mean it will, sometimes, have some rough edges or a few loose threads.

Philip Metres said...

Thanks, Lyle, I can always count on you to kick it up a notch--Rukeyser & McGrath are great poets who were able to be both present to the present and not swallowed up by it. The notion of an "occasional" or tactical poetry is certainly of value, because it relaxes the poet from worries of eternity.