Sometimes things that look easily categorized actually belong under their own heading. For example, does anybody really regard the millions of jangly ditties beeping out of endless cell phones as music? The fact that ringtones can be notated using the same graphical language as songs, symphonies, and spirituals does not make them categorical kin. They may both be "musical", but the description of something is not the same as a thing's actual identity. How we categorize things helps us keep them organized in terms of their value, but categories themselves do not confer value.
Language is like this. While just about everyone can dash off a grocery list--or at least dictate it into their smartphone app-- it's probably fair to say that mustard, pretzels, and laundry detergent hardly constitute award-winning prose. (I'm guessing there's a small portion of our readership who recall the famous scene in Norton Juster's classic "The Phantom Tollbooth". I'm talking about the time when court ministers to King Azaz the Unabridged spout the names of favorite foods in the town square, followed immediately by bountiful platters of the same.) Yet this very same language, prosaic nouns and verbs arranged with precision, becomes the tangible flesh and bone of literature.
Grocery lists have their place; they help you remember what to buy. I don't need extensive description, delicate metaphor, or surprising characterization to remind me to pull a quart of milk off the shelf. But when I'm making a movie, mixing a soundtrack, taking photographs, or leading a rehearsal for a live event, it's not enough just to stick together a string of words, sounds, or pictures. No matter the medium, the challenge is always the same. Of all the many choices possible, even if those choices are unattainable dreams, the job always comes down to synchronizing vital choices into larger context. That arrangement of options, that selection process demarcates the intangible boundary between poetry an an ordinary jumble of words on the page.
This process takes moxie and a surprising amount of energy. In fact, sometimes this process takes nerves of steel. Most creative acts have finite production clocks. No matter how self-indulgent an artist or creator of any other type, one thing's for certain: life runs out. On a more down-to-Earth, day-to-day level, schedules and budgets also run out. When creating something, the pressure to complete the job often acts like it's own gravitational field. Complaining about gravity doesn't make it any easier to leap tall buildings just as wishing for clarity and artistic inspiration doesn't make delivery schedules any less agreeable.
In a more literal sense, poetry as a construction of language often has a tough time coexisting amid the ordinary thrum of grocery lists and e-mails to your child's guidance counselor. With its intended precision, poetry functions differently, communicates more precisely, strikes the ear more powerfully than the many conversations and advertisements and newscasts and tennis lesson schedules we more regularly consume. No matter how much we say we're interested, sometimes the saturated clarity of a poem is more intense than we're prepared to experience. Imagine if everyone you met-- lover, friend, acquaintance, and stranger-- came up and gave you a hug. Sometimes Mcluhan's medium for conveying a message matters a lot.
The challenge remains the same, no matter the medium. Music, movies, poetry, cooking: adequacy will always be enough to get by, but excellence demands something more. Excellence demands critical decisions delivered without infinite amounts of time.
Perhaps we should practice more. (link to writers almanac here?) Perhaps part of the process is making sure that we give ourselves license regularly to reflect on intentional aesthetic thoughts. We should multitask less and listen to music more, without doing three other things at the same time.
Now here's a bizarre, but essential inversion. Remember my charge at the top that cell phone ring tones were not music, that just because they could be reduced to musical notation did not mean they were equivalent? It was a trap, dear reader: a trap to make a point. While I don't regard cell phone ringtones as music, per se, I do understand that quality is an attribute that can appear anywhere, in anything. Quality is the process of reaching for apotheosis, never actually arriving, of course, but reaching, reaching, reaching nonetheless. Whether we prefer one type of craft over another is not precisely the debate here. I find most ringtones to be little more than sonic indicators telling me that one person wants to speak with another. But even for the decidedly disposable craft of ringtones, I suppose I must also grudgingly acknowledge that there's such a thing as better or worse examples of the craft. Ultimately that's what may best define the essence of a poetic experience. If good words in intelligible order communicate, perfect words in sublime order also communicate. That they say more than the value of the literal words themselves is the reason they matter. Acts of creation lift the spirit, and the best acts make spirits soar. But even disposable acts, intentionally selected, can get you to answer the phone.
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