One morning last April I was driving to work on an expressway I take every day. About a mile before my usual exit I ran into a huge traffic backup and found myself inching forward at a pace I probably could have beaten in a casual walk. My initial impatience gradually cooled as I took note of the details along the roadside: the first green probing of new grass from beneath the melting snow (after all, I do live in Minnesota!), the rubbly and decaying edge of the pavement as it transitioned from concrete to gravel and finally to dirt and budding roadside flowers; and over all these details the bath of sunlight, arriving from an angle that startled me after months of seeing the sun barely scrape the southern horizon.
Sure, part of me was frustrated at the delay; but part of me was also fascinated, even uplifted, by this close encounter with a patch of the world that I usually sped past without a second thought. The traffic backup had forced me to look at that stretch of road in a way that was very different from my habitual mode of perception, and the result was an experience that remains memorable (I might even say precious) in a way that my hundreds of “normal” trips to work have not been.
I will take a leap here and say that my experience that morning was a poetic one, and that its poetic aspect occurred because of two interrelated factors: I encountered a difficulty (the traffic backup) that forced me to slow down my process of perception. Now, certainly, that backup (and the “difficulty” that I experienced as a consequence) was not intentional on anyone’s part. But in any case my normal habits of perception were broken; a piece of the world I had taken for granted (or even been previously unconscious of) had claimed my attention in a compelling new way.
If we think of language as being like the flow of traffic, we can begin to consider why the language of poetry and of literature in general sometimes strikes us as “difficult.” Our ordinary language use has the same drive for efficiency as the usual morning traveler on his or her way to work: we want to arrive there quickly, with the least amount of resistance. We also want to arrive there automatically—we don’t want to have to think about where we’re going or how we’re going to get there, and we don’t want to sightsee along the way. We don’t want to think about the composition of the roadway or the physical movement of the elements of the car motor. In everyday language as in everyday trips in the car, the emphasis is on “driving to arrive,” without being distracted or slowed by thoughts about how we get there or what we pass by along the way.
There is a cost to this way of making a trip or making meaning. The Formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky identified the issue in his 1917 essay “Art as Technique.” He noted that over time our perception of the most familiar aspects in our world becomes “habitual”; we take them for granted, reduce them to a sort of “algebra” of their most practical functions. “By this ‘algebraic’ method of thought,” he writes, “we do not see [objects] in their entirety but rather recognize them by their main characteristics.” The expressway I take on my morning drive to work, in other words, ceases to be an actual physical object, made up of concrete, asphalt, and tar patches, winding its way through neighborhoods full of people, past woods and ravines full of plants and animals; it simply becomes an almost disembodied line I traverse in getting from one place to another.
Now, efficiency is not necessarily or always a bad thing—but, as Shklovsky notes, if we over-use or over-privilege it this “algebraic” habit of perception can impoverish our experience of the world around us. While it “permits the greatest economy of perceptive effort,” it “also devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war” (quote from Shklovsky). Over time we stop experiencing things and people as fully themselves; their existence is obscured or reduced by our schematic versions of them.
This, it seems to me, is a profound and tragic insight. Habitualized perception is one reason that partners fall out of love with one another—over time the habits of the relationship reduce their perception of one another to basic roles and repeated functions like cooking, cleaning, breadwinning, making love, taking care of finances, etc. It’s one reason that some folks, relying on romanticized or abstract notions of what “war” is actually like, are so quick to see it as a solution rather than as the horror it actually is. It’s why we think we know the world around us when we really haven’t looked at it closely; it’s why we make assumptions about the people around us when we haven’t made the effort to take the full measure of their complex humanity.
According to Shklovsky, art (and in particular poetry) is the antithesis of this sort of perception, and the antidote to the possible ills that result from its overuse. As he puts it in that 1917 essay: “[A]rt exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony” (my italics), to make a tree more than a lumberjack’s algebraic calculation of how many cords of wood it will render. But this is not something that happens automatically or easily. As with the traffic jam that gave me a new apprehension of my morning route to work, we need to encounter resistance to our normal user-centered, efficiency-driven habits of seeing and apprehending meaning.
What we often experience as the “difficulty” of poetry is the poet’s use of various techniques to slow down our normal perception of words and the objects or ideas they denote; as a result our experience of them—the words as well as the things they signify—is not so automatic or algebraic, not so “taken-for-granted.” Poetry is not full of new objects or ideas so much as it is full of old ones that are “made new” by forcing us out of old, rutted habits of perception of them.
Here’s Shklovsky again: “A work [of art] is created ‘artistically’ so that its perception is impeded and the greatest possible effect is produced through the slowness of the perception”; “The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”
I’d like to add just one idea to Shklovksy’s point in that last quote. It might seem that he is expressing an “art-for-art’s-sake” philosophy (“the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself”), but I think that his emphasis on “slowing down” the process of perception has an ethical as well as an artistic importance. In order to love the world, to love one another, we must be wary of our “automatizing” impulses; we must work to see what is there, who is in front of us, and not simply rely on our habits of perception or on the “efficient” but reductive algebraic shorthand of our prior assumptions and beliefs.
The “difficulty” of poetry, the “resistance” it presents to our normal sense-making efforts, perceptual habits, discourages the sort of unreflective and instrumental view of the world and others that increasingly predominates in contemporary society. Instead, it cultivates in us a habit of “slow perception” in which the stone once again becomes “stony,” in which we see the object for its own sake and in its full, concrete complexity, and not just for some “instrumental” use we might make of it. This is an important skill and attitude to develop, especially if the “object” in question is another living being or some element or aspect of the living planet that sustains us all.
In other words, poetry is a way of paying close attention to the world. And poetry’s so-called “difficulty”—of imagery, syntax, eccentric appearance on the page, etc.—provides the resistance required for us to tone our perceptual muscles. In the spirit of this “toning” metaphor I’d like to bring this back to the more focused issue of poetry and poetic language by proposing a brief set of “thought exercises” that might be useful in approaching just about any poem, no matter how difficult or frustrating.
- What familiar object, person, experience, or idea seems to be central to the subject matter of the poem?
- What assumptions, characteristics, functions, or associations are part of my own “algebraic” understanding of this subject matter? What truisms, maxims, or beliefs do I habitually or automatically use to frame my thinking about the subject?
- What aspects or elements of the poem present “resistance” of one kind or another to my habitual way of thinking about its subject matter? What “slows me down” as I try to make sense of the poem?
- And finally, how does the poem create a perception of a familiar object, person, experience, or idea that is new and different from my prior, habitual, or automatized understanding?
Shklovsky, Viktor. “Art As Technique.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 3rd Ed. David H. Richter. Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2007. Print. 777-84.