I’m a fan of the poet/novelist Nick Laird’s sometime contributions to the Guardian’s Saturday Review, and last weekend – after a holiday in Italy where he was exposed to the Slow Food Movement – he wrote about how to read poetry now was to be part of a Slow Language Movement‘. A smart sub-editor pulled the phrase into the headline, and although one of the joys of ‘slow’ as an adjective is how easily it can be used to form new movements (there are Slow Towns as well), it seems – on the basis of a quick web search – that Nick Laird’s article may represent the first sighting of an emerging issue.
So it’s worth spending a little more time on it. Laird’s of an age which came of an age with the internet, and while he doesn’t seem to regret these technologies, they have made writing and publishing easier, but not editing.
The global reach of the internet married to the portability of a mobile phone: we’re everywhere and nowhere. Concentration proves hard to come by in a space where the vaguest thought, whim or wonder can be indulged or resolved in an instant. …. Language in the online world has immediacy and energy but often lacks discipline.
One of the costs of this is that it is harder to read more complex syntax and construction; Laird writes of the difficulties he’s had reading Dr Johnson and re-reading Henry James. (And this by the way, seems to me a more useful way into the question raised by Nick Carr last year on whether Google was making us stupid or not; asking instead, what types of conceptual work are harder, or easier, as a result of the widespread use of the internet).
This leads him to suggest that poetry readers (and poets) are a ‘Slow Language Movement’.
Poetry demands that the language matter, that it’s neither disposable nor simply denotative. Poetry needs quiet to be written, and is resistant to speed both in composition and comprehension. It is not for a fast life.
And as with the Slow Food movement, there is a correlation between the speed of production (the time spent in preparation and cooking) and the speed of consumption (the time spent in eating, enjoying, savouring). In poetry, there is a similar relationship between the time spent writing and the time spent reading:
The work is slow, but there is a correlation between effort and reward. … I think there’s something admirable about trying to make thoughts and language cohere into a poem. Derek Mahon exaggerates, but only slightly, in “The Mayo Tao” when he writes:
I have been working for years
on a four-line poem
about the life of a leaf.
I think it might come out right this winter.
Of course, there’s one further correlation between slow food and slow language (although Laird doesn’t make this point); both, to a significant extent, try to exist (or have to exist) largely outside of the market. The exchange that is going on may include money, but it goes way beyond it, to time and meaning. Down that road, of course, lies Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift, with its fine exploration of the relationship between culture, creativity, and the market. But I haven’t got time to go to there this evening.