In the two years since I became Vermont’s state poet, I have written some forty monthly newspaper columns. I have received innumerable responses, most of them blessedly supportive. (There have been just a few of the other kind.) Of all these, perhaps the most welcome came in reaction to my last effort. Part of the letter read as follows: “I had been away for many days and so I was quickly filling up my morning with busy tasks...I spotted your column– and my day changed... My mind slowed down, and life to me took on the right perspective again.”
Who could ask for a kinder appreciation? But recalling the skeptic in Luke’s gospel, I instantly thought, “Physician, heal thyself.”
That kind letter, you see, reached me after I too had been away for many days, on a delightful visit with a west coast friend of almost fifty years, and like my correspondent, it seems, I behave strangely after being off somewhere, even briefly: I worry that everything must be done yesterday, because I have been neglectful.
Neglectful of what? I have been retired for two years now.
But old habits die hard. And, because April is National Poetry Month, I did return to a whole series of scheduled appearances. In the past ten days, I’ve had nine such obligations, which involved successive, back-to-back round trips of four hours. After a one-day interlude, similar back-to-backs come on as of tonight.
These appearances, of course, do not constitute work. If I’m to read, the work has already been done (and it’s best described anyhow as work, not labor). Likewise if I’m to visit a library to speak about poetry: after some ninety such visits I need not “prepare,” just show up and enjoy the people I meet.
The letter I mentioned, together with my own idiotic anxiety and hurry, got me to thinking about the ways in which poetry is, or should be, related to slowing down, and how such slowing down may relate to what that letter called a right perspective.
In 1991, former U.S. Poet Laureate Mark Strand contributed an essay to the New York Times. It was aptly called “Slow Down for Poetry,” and it indicated, better than I will here, that poetry asks us to eschew the pace of typical contemporary life, because we can’t take in a poem’s particular qualities at the same speed with which, via technology, we more and more receive information. We can’t rush through it as we may through website pages. No, to absorb poetry, we must contemplate line, sentence, stanza, image, metaphor, and so on. We must, as a rule, re-read. We must, that is, slow down.
Permit me an apparent detour. Last night, my wife and I had a restaurant date. We try to schedule one every week if we can. (I almost said “if time allows.”) The place we chose has a charming ambience, a professional and cordial staff, excellent food. As soon as we were seated, though, I beheld something that in our time is a commonplace. At a table near to ours sat a family of four, from whom we detected precious little conversational buzz– because for most of the meal, all its members were glued to their Smart Phones. Could anything short of natural disaster or someone’s health crisis, I wondered, be so urgent that these people couldn’t savor what was served them, and more importantly, each other’s company?
As a writer, I have over and over again –sometimes, granted, at risk to practical obligations– experienced so profound a meditation on my own language and on all that it starts in my soul that I’ve suddenly looked at my watch and been stunned: what I’d believed mere minutes at my task turned out to be hours! I have, as the saying goes, lost all sense of time.
Now it’s not that everyone needs to be a poet, not at all. Nor is poetry the only mode of entering that unclocked sphere. But it is one way.
I try hard not to moralize, because I have plenty of defects; I am no better than the next man or woman. And yet I worry that for our culture knowledge has in fact been confused with the accumulation of data, and that we are so bound by our hell-for-leather virtual world that we miss the non-virtual. How often, for instance, have I seen kids intent on some device’s screen as they sit in the backseat of a car that passes through our Green Mountains or along some jewel-like lake’s shore? I want to scream, LOOK UP! How shocked I was, too, on one recent occasion to hear a highly remunerated software engineer ask at just what point George Washington was U.S. president.
That engineer would have said, perhaps, and rightly, that every sort of information is now accessible with a touch on a keyboard. I won’t be hypocrite enough, either, to say that I don’t take advantage of that access, and of course this and all my posts rely on technology. But information and knowledge are not identical quantities, nor are data and a vision of our world.
I’m given to quoting from my greatest predecessor as Vermont’s state poet, and it seems to me the following remarks are deeply related to what I am insisting on here:
Frost may seem to knock poetry off its putative pedestal by likening it, say, to a letter. Be that as it may, the great man’s message is clear, and it is implicit, precisely, in the sentiments voiced by the maker of the letter I cited at the outset. “Everybody’s sanity,” I believe, including my own, depends on slowing down. Poems can help if you are inclined that way.