The Pleasures of Poetry in an Age of Abstraction

Tessa Carter

Commenting on Google’s “Fear Less” ad, which portrays a young boy overcoming intense glossophobia with the help of his close companion Google Nexus 7, Jonathan Coppage observes,

Technology has been sold as the key to educational edge-cutting for quite some time, and Google is only the latest to try and talk parents into buying the newest and shiniest toys in an effort to give their children a leg-up in the school game. 

Technology’s service in the educational enterprise—and in everyday life in general—is undeniable, Coppage admits. But even so, there is in the scholastic landscape a shift in our conception of how technology is served. Coppage writes, 

But now that our experience with technology is moving from the straight outsourcing of routinized tasks to the obtaining of auto-retrieved results before we finish typing our first word, perhaps the time has come to wonder just how much of our everyday life is properly externalized. 

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.

What, then, does Coppage propose in this back-to-school season in lieu of befriending the handy and well-informed Nexus 7? What does he say we need amidst a failing education system and the increasing digitization of the scholastic landscape?

“Perhaps,” he says, “what we need is poetry.”

I think perhaps he’s right.

* * *

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.

Poetry itself is a stay against the abstraction (and distraction) of digital life. Jay Parini writes that “Poetic language matters because it is precise and concrete, and draws us closer to the material world.” We cannot escape the particularity and physicality of words arranged just so, written or spoken or sung, in an individual poem. Our lips taste the shape of words as we read, the rhythm of each line we remember as we walk. Reading a poem is, among other things, a physical act. In an interview with Narrative magazine, Donald Hall said, “I read poems for the pleasure of the mouth. My heart is in my mouth, and the sound of poetry is the way in.”

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.

Poetry also demands the discipline of attention. Though “poetry makes nothing happen,” it does not have to. What it does instead is open our eyes to the mystery of being. With Google, the mystery is only skin-deep. Google Glass deals in appearances; poetry reaches into the marrow of reality.

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.

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