The Machinery of Poetry?

John Stuart Mill in the Westminster Review from 1831:

“It would be a pity that poetry should be an exception to the Great Law of progress that attains in human affairs: and it is not. The machinery of a poem is not less susceptible of improvement than the machinery of a cotton mill; nor is there any better reason why the one should retrograde from the days of Milton than the other from those of Arkwright.”

My only question is this: how does a thinker as subtle as Mill (perhaps I’m giving him too much credit) make such an evidently egregious category mistake? Is it the power of the myth of the machine or is it the power of metaphor? Both I suspect.

Shared Sensibilities

Rochelle Gurstein captures in lovely prose a handful of thoughts I have attempted, with less eloquent results, to express myself.  “The Perils of Progress”, a brief essay appearing in The New Republic, opens with a story about “a lecture by an exquisitely sensitive, painfully alert poet friend of ours about how we live today” which elicits tired labels contemptuously applied.  As Gurstein puts it:

These days, even a few well-considered, measured reservations about digital gadgetry apparently cannot be tolerated, and our poet friend was informed by forward-looking members of the audience that she was fearful of change, nostalgic, in short, reactionary with all its nasty political connotations.

And this presumably from a learned and sophisticated audience.

Gurstein goes on to challenge the same NY Times editorial by Steven Pinker which drew some of my own comments some time ago.  She observes that in …

… disputes about the consequences of innovation, those on the side of progress habitually see only gains. They have no awareness that there are also losses—equally as real as the gains (even if the gain is as paltry as “keeping us smart”)—and that no form of bookkeeping can ever reconcile the two.

Gurstein concludes with some poignant reflections on the materiality of the book and the difference it makes to the experience of reading and the reader’s relationship to the author.  The essay truly is worth a few minutes of your time to read.  Also reading the few comments posted in response to Gurstein’s essay tends to reinforce her concerns.

At one point in the essay Gurstein spoke of Pinker’s “stacking the deck against” her sensibility.  That word, sensibility, struck me.  This is I think near to the heart of matter.  What Gurstein and others like her attempt to defend and preserve is not merely a point of view or a particular truth.  It is more subjective than that, but is not merely preference.  It is not at all like a preference, which, I suspect, is precisely what those who do not understand it will try to label it.  It is, well, a sensibility — a certain disposition or way of being in the world.  It is an openness and a sensitivity to certain kinds of experience and to certain dimensions of reality.  Because of this it resists description and facile reduction to the terms of a cost/benefit analysis.  Consequently, it can be difficult to convincingly defend a sensibility to those who know nothing of it.  Maybe it is best described as a “seeing the world as” or, perhaps better still, a “feeling the world as.”  A sensibility is a posture toward life, a way of inhabiting the world.

What all of this groping for words may have at its center is the experiential quality of a sensibility, and experience is, after all, incommunicable.   Unless, that is, two people share the sensibility and then words may even seem superfluous.  In this sense, those who share a sensibility, share the world.  Those who lack or fail to appreciate the sensibility Gurnstein articulates know only to shake their heads in condescending bemusement.  What those, like Gurnstein and her poet friend, who grieve the passing of a culture that nurtured their sensibility fear may be the onset of a long loneliness.


Nota bene: This post was first published in early July of 2010. I re-publish it today because the Gurnstein essay had been on my mind, because I think it makes a point that bears repeating, and because I imagine that my audience is now quite different than it was nearly a year and a half ago. I have edited some of the temporal references accordingly.

The Fog of Life: “Google,” Memory, and Thought

Last week a study suggesting that the ability to Google information is making it less likely that we commit information to memory garnered a decent amount of attention and discussion, including a few of my own thoughts in my last post.  In addition to writing a post on the topic I did something I almost never do for the sake of sanity, I followed the comment thread on a few websites that had posted articles on the story.  That was an instructive experience and has led to a few observations, comments, and questions which I’ll list briefly.

  • Google functions as a synecdoche for the Internet in way that no other company does. So when questions like “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” or “Is Google Ruining Our Memory?” are posed, what is really meant is more like “Is the Internet Making Us Stupid?”, etc.
  • Of course, “Google” is not an autonomous agent, but it has generated and made plausible a certain rhetoric that rather imprudently dismisses the need to remember.
  • People still get agitated by claims that the Internet is either bad or good for you.  Stories are framed in this way in the media, and discussion assumes this binary form.  Not much by way of nuance.
  • On the specific question of memory in relation to this study and the subsequent discussion, it is never quite clear what sort of memory is in view, although it appears that memory for facts or some variation of that is what most people are assuming in their comments.
  • The computer model of the brain is alive and well in people’s imagination.  How else could we explain the recurring claim that by offloading our memory to “Google” we are “freeing up space” in our memory so that our “processing” runs more efficiently.
  • Does anyone really believe that we, members of present society, are generally in danger of reaching the limits of our capacity for memory?
  • There is a concern that tying up memory on the retention of “trivial” facts will hamper our ability to perform higher order tasks such as critical and creative thinking.
  • “Trivial” is relative.  Phone numbers are often given as an example, but while knowing some obscure detail about the human cardio-vascular system might be “trivial” to me, it wouldn’t be so to a cardiovascular surgeon in the midst of an operation.
  • Why are we opposing two forms of knowledge or “intelligence” anyway?  Aren’t most of the people who are able to think critically and creatively about a topic or discipline the same people who have attained a mastery of the details of that same topic or discipline? Isn’t remembering the foundation of knowing, or are not the two at least intimately related?
  • Realizing that total recall of all pertinent facts in most cases is too high a bar, wouldn’t it at least be helpful not to rhetorically oppose facts to thinking?
  • The denigration of memory for facts seems — be warned this is impressionistic — aligned with a slide toward an overarching cloud of vagueness settling over our experience.  Not simply the vagueness by comparison with print disciplined speech that accompanies a return to orality, but a vagueness, distractedness, or inattentiveness  about immediate experience in general.
  • Will we know nothing in particular because we know where to find everything in general?

On that last note, consider Elizabeth Spires’ poem, “A Memory of the Future,” published in The Atlantic, and make of it what you will:

I will say tree, not pine tree.
I will say flower, not forsythia.
I will see birds, many birds,
flying in four directions.

Then rock and cloud will be
lost. Spring will be lost.
And, most terribly,
your name will be lost.

I will revel in a world
no longer particular.
A world made vague,
as if by fog. But not fog.

Vaguely aware,
I will wander at will.
I will wade deeper
into wide water.

You’ll see me, there,
out by the horizon,
an old gray thing,
who finally knows

gray is the most beautiful color.

“Gratitude Is Happiness Doubled By Wonder”

When I think of gratitude, I think of G. K. Chesterton. I can think of few others who appeared to be always animated by a deep and inexhaustible gratitude for life and all that it entailed. With that in mind, here are few lines from Chesterton on the theme of gratitude and thanks:

  • “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.”
  • “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”
  • “When it comes to life the critical thing is whether you take things for granted or take them with gratitude.”

And then I am also reminded of the closing line of a poem by Wendell Berry.  The poem is inspired by a poignant scene in Shakespeare’s “King Lear”:

I think of Gloucester, blind, led through the world
To the world’s edge by the hand of a stranger
Who is his faithful son. At the cliff’s verge
He flings away his life, as of no worth,
The true way lost, his eyes two bleeding wounds—
And finds his life again, and is led on
By the forsaken son who has become
His father, that the good may recognize
Each other, and at last go ripe to death.
We live the given life, and not the planned.

“We live the given life, and not the planned.”  That line etched itself into my mind the moment I first read it.  Simple and profound, an antidote to the disorders of our time.

It would make a great difference, would it not, if our posture toward life were such that we received it as a gift with gratitude and wonder;  if our hands were open to receive and to give in turn rather than clutched to take and to keep?

I tend to think it would make all the difference.


Also consider my 2011 Thanksgiving post: “Gratitude as a Measure of Technology”