Discovering Humanity Through Whispered Poetry in an Age of Rhetorical Explosives

Discovering Humanity Through Whispered Poetry in an Age of Rhetorical Explosives September 1, 2016

Orpheus and the Bacchantes by Gregorio Lazzarini, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Flannery O’Connor once said in justification of her fiction that, in a deaf culture, one has to shout and draw large figures. And this is true of a particular kind of cultural deafness. Where violence and rot is covered up by a certain kind of respectability, such shouting and grotesqueness can be an invaluable wake-up call.

However, in my recent experience, there are other kinds of deafness amidst which shouting and grotesque figures simply don’t help. This is the deafness caused not by cover-up-respectability, but by exposure to too much shouting and noise. If one is deaf daily due to the noises and explosions of existence in an active construction zone, a few more shouts are just going to add to the noise rather than get anyone to listen.

And I feel like this is the rhetorical climate we live in. Shouts and grotesqueness work where there is politeness and respectability. They don’t work where there is simply noise, where each party is simply trying to out-yell the other. Extreme satire doesn’t work when history itself starts reading like a satirist’s script. Parody doesn’t work because we have ourselves become incarnate parodies. In a deaf culture that is respectable, one shouts and draws large grotesque figures. But in a culture where regular communication is undertaken with shouting and grotesqueness, there must be something else. Which is why I am turning increasingly away from the give and take of public argumentation and toward poetry. And this because I think we need to excavate once more the form of the human buried underneath the debris that marks its grave.

You see, like it or not, the human form is one of the things everyone wants, whether left or right, religious or non-religious. But in the current rhetorical climate, our attempts are a little like those of a demolition company trying to do restorative archeology. We can blast away at things with dynamite and shake them to bits with pneumatic drills. But this just destroys everything – there are no relics left. Sometimes I suspect that, in the most secret places of their hearts, those most responsible for the shouting and dynamiting on either side really do want the same thing – apocalypse and death. At the end of the day there is not really so much difference between the religious fundamentalist who wants civilization reduced to dust as a punishment against the godless heathen, and the progressive who secretly wants such apocalyptic destruction because those awful bigoted fundamentalists really are asking for it. Right and left, we pray to the same god: Nihilism.

And so I have turned to poetry. Not because poetry will be heard. But because it is right that there should be more complicated pictures of the human form than the ones we encounter daily in our news and Facebook feeds. It is right that the details of what a human is – in all its complexity and ambiguity and sin and grace and glory – should be traced. It is right that that form of which God said, “It is good” – marred by sin though it is – should be remembered.

We are blasting to pieces things that should be handled with gloves and brushes. The destruction of ancient art and architecture by organizations like ISIS is really only the physical manifestation of something we’ve been doing ideologically for a while. At the end of the day, is the cynical deconstruction of a piece of literature which we in our superiority have transcended really so much different in spirit from the destruction of ancient churches or temples? Like the students in Hitchcock’s classic film, Rope, fundamentalists may in fact simply be the most astute students of progressives. The world means nothing, you say? We are post-human, you say? Fine, we’ll act that way. Did you think we wouldn’t take you seriously? Flannery O’Connor in more than one place suggests that the great joke on Nietzsche is that the “new man” he prophesied isn’t the great and glorious thing he imagined, but rather the ad-man. And the business of ad-men is to reduce complex beauty to shoutable sound bytes that succeed by inundation and nagging. All publicity is good publicity.

And so I turn to poetry, one art that at least retains, if not categorically, then at least potentially, the capacity to participate in the careful excavation of the human form, the division of soul and spirit and joint and marrow that is the business of the Word of God and those who follow Him. Sometimes in deaf cultures you have to shout and make large grotesque figures. But other times, when the shouting and grotesqueness get too loud and obnoxious and everything is exploding around you, you have to whisper. Not because anyone will hear you. But because what you are whispering is truth in all its beautiful, complicated glory.

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