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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 8/17/10

Plugged Stupid

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In the preface to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman wrote, "The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetic nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem [...] One sees it must indeed own the riches of the summer and winter, and need never be bankrupt while corn grows from the ground or the orchards drop apples or the bays contain fish or men beget children upon women [...] Of all nations the United States with veins full of poetical stuff most need poets and will doubtless have the greatest and use them the greatest. Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall."

Boy, was our bard wrong! Though we grow practically nothing but corn now, we are bankrupt, and of all the arts, none is more despised and neglected than poetry, but don't worry, this article is not really about that dessicated corpse, but the climate that has made poetry obsolete, the conditions that are the cause and symptoms of our national nervous breakdown.

Poetry is close reading and attentive listening. It requires silence, reflection, sustained focus and analysis, mental habits that are much atrophied in our culture, and which our young are growing up mostly without. In a society that always hurries, even to nowhere, fast, and values quantity over quality, most this, biggest that, poetry is truly a waste of time. We don't even have the patience to look at each other in the eyes and listen.

I talk to the side of a face, as this face stares at a screen. My voice must often compete with yet another song, replayed for the zillionth time. I shout in fragments, because even three sentences in succession would crash my listener's frayed hard drive, burdened as it is with trillions of greatest hits, sport statistics, Sarah Palin's aphorisms and porn images.

There are books devoted to our mass attention deficit disorder, but it only takes common sense to figure out why we can't think straight or hold ideas that aren't slogans, soundbites or stereotypes. You can't think if you're not trying to do so. You can't think if you'd rather do anything else, or several things simultaneously. Yes, we're distracted and seduced relentlessly, but it's possible to say no to noise and flickering lights. Babysat by television, our kids are growing up fidgety, with flawed memory and retarded language skills, just like, well, their elders. On a recent school visit, I asked a group of sixth graders, "How many of you listen to music as you read?" Two thirds raised their hands. "Next time, just try," I said, "to read without listening to the ipod or stereo, and without having the TV on. You'll comprehend more. I'm not telling you what to do, now," I smiled. "It's just a suggestion. Will you give it a shot?"

"Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems,

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun" there are millions of suns left ,

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand" nor look through the eyes of the dead" nor feed on the spectres in books ,

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself."

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Linh Dinh's Postcards from the End of America has just been published by Seven Stories Press. Tracking our deteriorating socialscape, he maintains a photo blog.

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