Poetry, Power, Intention, Attention.

I know this is very long and the attention span and patience seem to diminish online, but there's a lot of food for thought in it and I'd welcome any comments.


Human beings are born with voices, born with throats tongues mouths and ears, and a want and waste of words to try to capture or release what lies beneath them. Our voices are vessels, ships or kites which can catch something, some reflection, some shadow, of the patterns that make up our lives. Our voices are bells that can ring for others, for ourselves, and point our attention. Words themselves are arbitrary vocal vibrations assigned to shadow ministries of thoughts and feelings that maybe never can be expressed, but don’t need to be, only suggested.

Words themselves are arbitrary, (although maybe not all words, I’ve been told that the vocal vibrations – the spoken letters- of Sanskrit will actually create the marks – the written letters- in a substance such as sand or metal filings which is exposed to them, sounds unbelievable but who knows) but their existence isn’t.

We are not born with pens or pages although we are born into a world awash with them. Pens and pages, or computers, take sketches of our voices that then live without and beyond us, we hope. Currently, although the spoken word is still dominant for day to day life, the written is privileged in certain senses, because we live in a world where to express something to one person or a roomful of people is never enough, we all feel like we live on an entire planet and want to be heard across it, by all the living and all the future living. And living in a world in which our choice of shoes, dinner, or power consumption is directly connected to suffering and death, in which a patterned and mundane system of exploitation and degradation looms and is nestled on front pages of newspapers that three inches over show us what gold flaked(!) or hyperpowered(!) cack we should be buying to stave off the present moment, and don’t even talk about the future, our voices need to be global, although generally speaking we need to be listening more to the planet than trying to make ourselves heard, listening to ourselves more than trying to make ourselves heard.

Maybe the questions and the answers have been with us all along and don’t need saying so much as listening to. Of course I’m being metaphorical here. And hyperbolic. I’m going to make an argument, of sorts, that writing and reading, silently and aloud, should be taken more seriously. That we can all benefit from a more devoted approach to both and that the two help each other.

Poetry, like nationality, like children, like all great works, is partly (partly) another form of immortality by proxy. And the easy and incredible diffusion of inks and electronics promises us an infinite expansion of time and space. Is it fantastic? Yes. Is it also worrying? Yes.

Humans living in developed countries are, if not drowned, at least soaked in words, wherever we go they whisper scream threaten tease and comfort us and bewilder us, penetrate us and alienate our attention into hives of adverts TVs logos signs papers books clothes. This is the great trick of the Information Age, as the alienation of labour was in the Industrial Age. Maybe not a conspiracy, but definitely a consequence. It is very possible, permissible, to view words as cheapened, as cheapened as images, as ideas. The same goes for the spoken as for the written, the endless presence of recordings dilutes the power of the voice, once held as sacred, and still so in many parts of the world, here often just another selling tool. Just another auxiliary in the war over our attention, an asset which is secretly and not so secretly as contested as food, water, oil, debt, and all other forms of ‘property’ based levers, but which is given unthinkingly. Time, Attention and Intention are all we have in life and we throw them away like confetti at Karma’s wedding.

It seems that wherever printed words are easily and cheaply available the culture of orality suffers, and that wherever there is illiteracy or fewer books a stronger oral culture is present. Ireland, partly because of poverty and illiteracy, had a powerful tradition of storytelling, singing, and fine fancy talking which is now waning but we still have a strong verbal fluency and playfulness. The same is true of black Americans, who developed an amazing oral culture based on story and song during slavery which survives as hip-hop (and the rap battle is as old as poetry, as old as talking it seems) and other musical forms as well as verbal jousting, and has bridged into a great literature. Today Slavic storytellers and Tibetan paper-singers, both often illiterate, South African praise poets, and many others retain huge respect and authority in their communities. However, we should not see oral and literal (lettered) culture as being in opposition, the two flourish side by side, interact and feed each other and are more worthwhile in light of each other.

The advent of writing may have fundamentally changed the way we think, allowing for greater abstraction and organisation of thought; ideas did not rely on human bodies anymore and they could spread, multiply and differentiate their own cellular structure with more space and time allowed them. Writing may also be one of the birthplaces of the abstract, modern God. Think about it, writing allows for the God to be exactly present everywhere, everywhere the same, perfect, and separate from human bodies, from animals, from ‘nature’, this is a God like Plato’s forms (another birth point) a light which shines on all flawed, corrupt etc actually existing instances of life. The increasing complexity of ideas fed back into our speech, making our speech more complex, more powerful, but also in some ways foggier.

Today we accept that words don’t actually attach to anything, they only ring bells that point us to ideas/feelings or other words. For instance, the string of syllables ‘Dave Rock’ has no connection to that great shambling temporal-spatial pattern of organisms, bacteria, porous tidal flesh, and shimmering constellations of consciousness particles and neuronal networks I know as I. This doesn’t detract from their efficiency as a fishhook for me, or the seven hundred and ninety three million six hundred and forty two thousand one hundred and two other Daves (at the exact time at which this full stop lies.) How could it? Words’ flexibility, their emptiness, is what makes them such powerful vessels. Just like DNA, words are nested inside a combinatorial grammar system which means they only make sense according to their sequence, every new sequence is a new sense, which makes possible an infinity of utterances by an infinity of human beings. Like DNA, language only exists inside individual utterances, inside voices, beings.

Words are also symptoms of perceptual patterns and are inextricable from power relationships. Think about the four words Governor, Master, Governess, Mistress. The only difference is the gender but the two male forms are positions of great authority. The two female forms are a private teacher and a kept bit on the side. Think about how white and black are used. This particular binary is beautifully nonsensical because dark skin is a result of exposure to more light, which is what the binary privileges. Some people point to language as creating these relations of domination however, and in doing this they fall into slippery chicken-and-egg territory. Words are largely reflections, or symptoms, it’s true that they can reinforce and they can (re)create definitions which oppress and distort, they can develop their own legs, so to speak. But words do not enforce prejudices which don’t have a whole iceberg of other methods and assets. In order for language to shape reality you have to able to make the consequences of your definition stick and do so. Think about the words dextrous and sinister; one means skilled and impressive, the other means unnerving and ill-purposed, the first comes from the Latin word for right, the second from the word for left. Nobody is claiming that these words reinforce systems of domination anymore, because nobody is repressed (anymore) for being left handed.

Where is this particular bell-ringer headed with these suggestions?
Milan Kundera, in L’Art du roman, affirms his belief that true poetry is a smashing of the wall to reveal what was always there. In the attempt to do this poets must ignore all accepted wisdom, all conventions, and point to shout to or hammer on what is not said, or even thought. Spokesmen (sic) for the obvious, self-evident and ‘what we all believe, don’t we?’ are false poets, say Kundera. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman expands this definition to true sociologists or anyone else who would try to help society understand itself. William Blake considered art to be a disease that cures homeopathically. As people composing or receiving poetry we already face one very powerful wall; the arbitrariness of language. This is more to be seen through than broken down. Meaning is inside our perception of patterns in everything, words are just one more torch to swing at the madness, but they throw a beautiful light, we can use that light to look at things or we can dazzle ourselves. When we get stuck on the symbolic or metaphoric level of words we’re wall-climbing. There are endless other walls in the form of indoctrination, whether it’s to capitalist competition or to totalitarianism, nationalism, individualism, alienating forms of religion, or buying into others’ opinions of us, non-presence, materialism…….

The one I want to focus on here is the almost schizophrenic media saturation we see as natural here in the west. Media blizzards come from maestros who would wish to be seen as spokesmen for the obvious, it’s obvious you should buy our soporific sex smell, our liquor car ideology, our reasons for war, for debt, for buying into buying, for believing yourself free powerful insignificant or whatever else it is. That is, these people wish to make certain ideas seem like the truth. In order for this to happen our attention has to be bled constantly; hence the babble-on of electronics and ink. I’m not talking conspiracy theories here, it’s more complex than that, but it is true that our capacity and inclination towards distraction is used as a sedative. We could be uncomfortably watching a starving child or razed forest and ten seconds later whacking off, physically or emotionally, to Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Coronation Street. (I don’t watch TV so I tend to want to kill my mind with over reading and music). Having TV on all the time kills conversations, but it does far more than that, it makes it ok to ignore everything. You can’t go out in town without being bombarded with turgid tunes, announcements, and glowing screens. All this serves to divorce us from the moment. If you were really present in your body, in the moment, could you bear that Christmas song for the hundredth time? Would you really watch that show?

The Babylon of words makes it harder to really hear or see the messages being thrown. Printing is a beautiful thing, without it I wouldn’t be able to know the words of Shakespeare, Pynchon, Ted Hughes, or any of those other angels of thought. Without recorded voices I would never have heard Nina Simone sing Sinnerman or Pirate Jenny, but it’s also true that if all music were live we’d feel it a lot deeper, music would have a special time and place, not a permanent pirate station playing formula hooked tunes and jingles in our heads (Germans call them ear-worms). Likewise if all words are live then they mean more, have more power. Every live song or speech we hear is already coloured by the morass of material we’ve imbibed. There’s no getting away from that.

However, when we read we can be careful to slow our minds down, clean them up a little, or the bells will be muted by the general cacophony. When we do anything we need to be careful to slow our minds down, to clean them up. Our attention is regarded as one more piece of waste ground to be colonised, to be strung with tinsel, to be tapped for blood, to be spun into candy floss. And this isn’t just slaphappy advertisers and politicians, it’s us who are actively participating in this agenda of oblivion.

We all have voices inside our heads. Those voices can go a lot faster than our mouths can, because they have no tongues to twist. So, when we read a poem out loud, we’re slowing it down to the pace it should be digested at. We’re also privileging it by allowing it more physical presence inside our senses, our bodies. Feeling the shape in our mouths, in our ears. It’s possible, when reading silently, to engage in such nauseous practises as simultaneously listening to music, this should be outlawed. It’s just another modern way of refusing to commit our attention, our presence, to anything properly in case it’s not enough for us. In case we’re not enough. This is the dilution of irony, irony is fundamentally an inability or disinclination to commit to anything, especially the present moment.

Poetry, and life, will give us much more if we give ourselves to it as fully as possible. Ted Hughes believed poets should ‘drop bombs’ on their audience, that poetry was a sacred and healing thing, and, as with all human endeavours, it is if we make it so, it’s just another way of killing time if we make it that. When something is written down it’s dormant, waiting for another voice to revive it, reading poetry aloud can help you know it as it should be, and will make your silent voice a better reader too.

There is a second quality to recommend reading aloud, perhaps more important. If poetry really is a collective effort, an attempt to tear down walls, then surely it is natural for us to gather together and feel it together. To be drawn together in pain or joy, in memory, anger, or whatever else we need. This is one of the functions that poetry has served throughout the vast part of our history, there were others such as ritual, medicine etc, but they were all social. If the life of humanity were taken as one year, writing shows up around December. Although writing and reading are beautiful things, it’s possible to write the most fantastic poem in history, ever, scientifically proven, and do it alone, to read it, and read it alone. And if that’s the only way poetry can be shared then much of its power and purpose is gone. By reading poetry aloud together we give it the space, physical and mental, and temporality it needs.

These are examples, of sorts, to reinforce an argument, of sorts, for reading aloud, and for reading poetry properly in general. But really for doing whatever we do properly. Living in a world whose mental environment, whose horizons, are as crammed and strained as its physical ones are, it’s important to take the time and space to actually inhabit. Giving yourself the room to read with an undivided attention will make the experience much more worthwhile. And reading it aloud is one way to help yourself into it. Reading aloud together is one of the most effective ways of feeling poetry and of making words what they should be, a social bond. Poetry, like all other man made things, only has the power that we give it.

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