The time has indeed come. Amidst the Googlization of everything, it has become clear that there are some things Google cannot and ought not do. Google cannot replace a distracted student’s brain with a curious and attentive one, nor can it enhance such qualities as courage, kindness, and truth-telling.
Given the aims of a humanistic education—the intellectual formation of human beings, whether they live in the digital age or the stone age—the production of ever sleeker and shinier gadgets is, despite proclamations of revolution, largely superfluous. As Coppage suggests,
[P]erhaps purchasing one more avenue for Google Now to anticipate our every need is not educationally value-added. Perhaps, what our education system should be focused on is keeping our minds sharp and disciplined, preserving the powers of self-direction and careful attention.
The powers of self-direction and careful attention are precisely things that are cultivated through the intellectual and moral habits of individuals and their relationships with other human beings, not through the replacement of mental and physical processes with Google products. When we discover that we are serving Google rather than Google serving us, we will find the service very poor indeed.
The poet Mary Oliver once wrote, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” If this is true, then our proper work may include carefully considering our use of technology and how that use shapes us, and regularly setting aside the speedy tablet to give our attention to the slow language, poetry.
Poetry is a better, though harder, master than Google. Reading poetry is a peculiarly difficult act, for it demands the devotion of body, mind, and heart. And, as Coppage points out, “There are no shortcuts,” and never will be, if poetry remains and we remain human.
A poem truly experienced is a poem that is lived with—memorized and spoken, recalled in the morning and remembered at night, growing more precious and meaning more deeply through days of recitation and reckoning. To appreciate poetry, we need to pay attention, and it may take some time to train ourselves to take the painstaking care needed to read a poem well. But the end of our labor is joy, just as a good meal needs time to slowly simmer and at last to savor and celebrate.
Now, what has all this Luddite romanticizing have to do with education?
A whole lot, it turns out, if we’re concerned with educating human beings rather than credentialing digital natives. Language shapes the way we think, and the words we use shape our vision of the world. Poetry renews our language, re-imbuing meaning into words maltreated by sound-byte discourse and Facebook memes.
Poetry demands both precision and imagination; it plumbs the depths of meaning, whereas Google can only optimize our search for information. Google can give us words on the screen, but it is up to us to make them our own.
If, as Plato said, “The object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful,” then let us teach ourselves to love poetry. For love requires knowledge of the deepest kind—knowledge of an entirely different order from Google analytics—and learning to love requires profoundest attention.
They say being a parent changes everything and it is true, but not all at once. There is the immediate annihilation of available time, but there is also the slow accretion of change as bits of what seemed solid about your identity get worn away.
My son, my executioner
I take you in my arms
Quiet and small and just astir
and whom my body warms
Sweet death, small son,
our instrument of immortality,
your cries and hunger document
our bodily decay.
We twenty two and twenty five,
who seemed to live forever,
observe enduring life in you
and start to die together.
– Donald Hall
So there is the literal death foretold in birth, but also this subjective death. I do not lament it. Mortality becomes as present as a blister in contact with a hot stone. Everything becomes both more, and less, urgent. Every little shard of experience lies in wait. A potential sabotage. Another bifurcation point in an unfolding narrative. So Katy Perry talks of young love lost, but it is also a tale of alternate paths – lives lived and not lived, the melancholy of the could, the should…I get that feeling every time I’m in an airport or see a plane passing overhead. But I especially feel it each morning whether faced with rain on glass, cold sunshine, or the grim darkness of hotel drapes.
In another life
I would be your girl
We’d keep all our promises
Be us against the world
In another life
I would make you stay
So I don’t have to say
You were the one that got away
The one that got away
– Katy Perry
Baby breath becomes laughter. Words become poetry. Skin becomes soil. And pop music becomes philosophy. Happy birthday June babies – it is July already.
The poetics of belief – absolute truth and absolute contingency – the poetry of faith and the faith in poetry
…Wiman is relentless in his probing of how life feels when one is up against death. In his desire to “speak more clearly what it is that I believe,” he recounts how, after long wandering, he sought to reclaim his religious faith. He understands that he is not recapturing the faith he had as a child, noting that “if you believe at 50 what you believed at 15, then you have not lived — or have denied the reality of your life.” With both honesty and humility, Wiman looks deep into his doubts, his suspicion of religious claims and his inadequacy at prayer. He seeks “a poetics of belief, a language capacious enough to include a mystery that, ultimately, defeats it, and sufficiently intimate and inclusive to serve not only as individual expression but as communal need.” This is a very tall order, and Wiman is a brave writer to take it on.
Drawing on his position as someone facing a diminished life span, Wiman mounts a welcome, insightful and bracing assault on both the complacent pieties of many Christians and the thoughtless bigotry of intellectuals who regard Christian faith as suitable only for idiots or fools…He comments: “To admit that there may be some psychological need informing your return to faith does not preclude or diminish the spiritual imperative, any more than acknowledging the chemical aspects of sexual attraction lessens the mystery of enduring human love.”
Wiman is adept at making connections between the religious impulse and the need to create art. Like many artists, after shedding his early religious faith, he transferred “that entire searching intensity” into his work. But eventually Wiman sensed that all those hours of reading, thinking and writing were leading him back into faith. He began to feel that “human imagination is not simply our means of reaching out to God but God’s means of manifesting himself to us.”
Wiman finds that the integrity of a poem, which is “its own code to its own absolute and irreducible clarity,” is similar to that of a God who lives “not outside of reality but in it, of it, though in ways it takes patience and imagination to perceive.” Both require the use of metaphor, “which can flash us past our plodding resistance and habits into strange new truths.” Christ’s repeated use of metaphor and story, Wiman asserts, is an effective way of asking people to “stake their lives on a story, because existence is not a puzzle to be solved but a narrative to be inherited and undergone and transformed person by person.”
…And in accepting that the words and symbols of Christianity say something true about reality but are also necessarily limited in their scope, he sees an analogue with poetry. “You can’t spend your whole life questioning whether language can represent reality,” he writes. “At some point you have to believe that the inadequacies of the words you use will be transcended by the faith with which you use them.”
…The idea of the artist as heroic loner, he decides, is for him merely an anxiety that has become dangerously useful. Coping with his cancer has drawn him closer to other people, and also to the Jesus who suffered on the cross. “The point,” he writes, “is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering.”
… “I am, such as I am, a Christian,” he writes, “because I can feel God only through physical existence, can feel his love only in the love of other people.” His love for his wife and children, he realizes, is both human and entirely sacred. And here the poet comes to the fore, insisting on the right to embrace contradiction without shame. “I believe in absolute truth and absolute contingency, at the same time. And I believe that Christ is the seam soldering together these wholes that our half vision — and our entire clock-bound, logic-locked way of life — shapes as polarities.”
“Can Poetry Matter?” by Dana Gioia is as relevant for art as poetry and as urgent today as it was in 1991. A must read. Really.
American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individual artists they are almost invisible.
…Decades of public and private funding have created a large professional class for the production and reception of new poetry comprising legions of teachers, graduate students, editors, publishers, and administrators. Based mostly in universities, these groups have gradually become the primary audience for contemporary verse. Consequently, the energy of American poetry, which was once directed outward, is now increasingly focused inward. Reputations are made and rewards distributed within the poetry subculture.
The true poem is not that which the public read. There is always a poem not printed on paper, coincident with the production of this, stereotyped in the poet’s life. It is what he has become through his work. Not how is the idea expressed in stone, or on canvass or paper, is the question, but how far it has obtained form and expression in the life of the artist. His true work will not stand in any prince’s gallery. [italics in original; bold emphasis mine] – H. D. Thoreau in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers
Leisure, thou goddess of a bygone age,
When hours were long and days sufficed to hold
Wide-eyed delights and pleasures uncontrolled
By shortening moments, when no gaunt presage
Of undone duties, modern heritage,
Haunted our happy minds; must thou withhold
Thy presence from this over-busy world,
And bearing silence with thee disengage
Our twined fortunes? Deeps of unhewn woods
Alone can cherish thee, alone possess
Thy quiet, teeming vigor. This our crime:
Not to have worshipped, marred by alien moods
That sole condition of all loveliness,
The dreaming lapse of slow, unmeasured time.