Slow language, and poetry

by Rob Tiller

The slow language movement noted in my recent post is surely an old idea — even in living memory, people have read slowly — but the idea threatens to be submerged beneath the tide of texts that inundates us.  For me, and for many, the flood of words that may be significant, that need to be taken account of, is overwhelming.  I deal with hundreds of emails a day, and that’s a minor part of my personal deluge.

To survive, effective skimming is a must.  But becoming a good skimmer means putting at risk skills in close, attentive reading.  This is not a minor matter.  Those skills are a potential source of enormous joy.  The survival of great literature depends on the survival of thoughtful reading.

Today’s NY Times has an appreciation of Richard Poirier, the scholar and literary critic who died last week at age 83.  Poirier taught that for the best writers, meaning cannot be pinned down, and that they use the resources of language to defeat straightforward interpretation.  He was a proponent of close, hard reading, that explored the author’s struggle for self-definition and meaning.

My current personal program to avoid completely losing the capacity for thoughtful reading is to carve out a little time each day with great poetry.  Lately I’ve been focusing primarily on Wallace Stevens, but I keep close at hand collections of Yeats, Frost, Tennyson, and the anthology by Harold Bloom.

This work is in many instances wonderfully compact.  A lot of potential meaning and feeling is embodied in a small amount of text, so it is manageable even for a busy person.  The poems demand repeated readings, but the readings can be spread out in time.  This little oasis in a busy day often rewards me with a deep aesthetic shiver.  I’m hoping over the longer term it will prevent halt further deterioration of the capacity for literary joy.