Saturday, January 7, 2017

Signal-to-Noise ratio #poetry

I believe that poetry has relevance for everyone's day-to-day lives. That's one of the reasons there's a poem at the end of each of the posts I've written for My Minnesota for the past four years or so. If I've chosen well, the poem clearly matches the theme or topic of the day's posting. Since the November election, I've been struggling with the question of the role poetry can and should play in our lives and politics. That brought me to rereading Adrienne Rich's What Is Found There, Notebooks on Poetry and Politics. Her second chapter concludes with the following paragraph:
"A poem can't free us from the struggle for existence, but it can uncover desires and appetites buried under the accumulating emergencies of our lives, the fabricated wants and needs we have had urged on us, and accepted as our own. It's not a philosophical or psychological blueprint; it's an instrument for embodied experience. But we seek that experience, or recognize it when it is offered to us, because it reminds us in some way of our need. After that rearousal of desire, the task of acting on that truth, or making love, or meeting other needs, is ours.
this is a photo of 2 bald eagles in a tree, True?
this is a photo of 2 bald eagles in a tree, True?
Photo by J. Harrington

I have found it increasingly troublesome to meet my need to separate fact from fiction, truth from lies, in this inter-webbed,  "post-truth" era of ours. In reality, I doubt very much that humans can long survive, let alone thrive, in a "post-truth" culture. Nevertheless, it is true that there are many ways to view a truth, just as a cut diamond has may facets and the deepest forest often has more than one path through it. The fact that we live in times where politicians, corporations and other institutions find it to their advantage to cheat and distort truths until caught in their misrepresentations, lies, and "misspeaks," and then to rely on our short memories so they can do it again, while our "news media" focuses on ratings, clicks, advertising dollars and not on the reasons they were included in the First Amendment is, it seems to me, collective behavior poisoning common wells. We have a simple, basic response available to us: Don't buy their products, don't vote with our Xs, ovals or dollars. That's they way capitalism and democracy are supposed to work, but then, I grew up in a neighborhood that lived by the code "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me." Neither campaign promises nor product performance standards are intended to be broken.

Wallace Stevens, a respected and representative poet of the 20th century, notes the significance of truth in a poem cited by Rich in her essay "Voices from the Air." Scientists, engineers and poets share a common interest in the signal-to-noise ratio of communications. These days, and for a distressingly long time now, I believe our signal-to-noise ratio has been less < 1 and is still diminishing. We can meet our need for truthful communications by valuing the words we use, the meanings we intend, and, as a Republican president once said, by remembering to "Trust, but Verify," even with poetry.

The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm

By Wallace Stevens

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

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