“The man deaf to the voice of poetry is a barbarian,” wrote Goethe. We live in a society that has supposedly turned away from barbarism, yet we read less and less poetry. The change in our values and priorities explains this supposed contradiction: we are more informed, but we enjoy reading less as a pleasure in itself. We understand words but their most hidden meanings escapes us.
In fact, poetry is food for the soul. Arouse emotions. Play with words and meanings. Follow its own rules. Freely. It traps reason. It slips away from narrow signifiers. Opens new horizons. It demands mindfulness. It encourages the flow.
Perhaps it is precisely for all that that we read less and less poetry. In fact, the philosopher Byung-Chul Han believes that we are developing a phobia of poetry as a society, because we are no longer receptive to that wonderful literary chaos with which we need to connect on an emotional and aesthetic level.
We use a pragmatic language stripped of its playful character
Han thinks that in recent times we have impoverished the role of language, relegating it to a mere transmitter of information and producer of meanings. With the daily rush, language has become an eminently practical instrument, stripping it of its signifiers. Obviously, “Language as a means of information usually lacks splendor, it does not seduce”, as Han points out.
In modern society we do not have time to stop to taste a poem that plays with language and spurs the imagination beyond the practical. Imbued with the daily rush, “We have become unable to perceive the shapes that shine by themselves,” according to Han.
In fact, “In poems we enjoy our own language. The hard-working and informative language, on the other hand, cannot be enjoyed […] Instead, the language plays in the poems. The poetic principle restores its joy to language by radically breaking with the economy of the production of meaning. The poetic does not produce” and in a society obsessed with production, results and objectives, there is no room to linger on what the end in itself is pleasure.
“Poetry is made to feel and is characterized by what it calls surplus and signifiers […] Excess, the surplus of signifiers, is what makes language seem magical, poetic and seductive. That is the magic of poetry”. On the other hand, “The information culture loses that magic […] We live in a culture of meaning that rejects the signifier, the form, as superficial. It is hostile to joy and form,” explainsHan.
Unlike the meaning, which is the most essential, the signifiers refer to the forms and the symbolic. The meaning refers to the content, the concept or the idea while the signifier is its expression, the way in which that content, concept or idea is transmitted. However, “Poetry is an attempt to approach the absolute through symbols”, as Juan Ramón Jiménez wrote. In poetry what is said is as important as how it is said.
Today we are in too much of a rush to get to the content and get the idea. We want to get to the heart of the matter. And that leads us to forget about the playful aspect that rests on forms and expressions. For this reason, poetry that resonates emotionally has less and less place in today’s society.
Cognitive laziness and the emptiness of the soul
The fact that we read less and less poetry is not only due to our renunciation of signifiers and forms, it also has its roots in the growing culture of the “poltically correct”. In a culture that imposes more and more rules that cannot be broken, poems are insurrectionary and transgressive because they play with imprecisions and ambiguities, firmly opposing that mere production of meaning.
The poems play with the unexpressed. They are open to interpretation. They enter the terrain of uncertainty. And that generates more and more aversion. It makes us feel uncomfortable, as if we are walking on mined ground. In this context, the poems themselves represent an act of rebellion against an essentially productive society.
Beyond that social discomfort, poetry also demands cognitive work that many are no longer willing to do. After all, most readers are used to reading and decoding the text from its syntax, generally clear and direct. This means that we are trained to understand a text almost immediately and “mechanically”. We read with reason. However, as poetry runs through an indirect syntax, many people find it “unintelligible.”
Its peculiar syntax, tropes, and metaphors dislocate our sense of “directness.” No matter how hard we look, there is no univocity in the reading of the text. That throws us off. It forces us to look for other points of reference, often within ourselves.
Paraphrasing Octavio Paz, each poem is unique and each reader must look for something in that poem, but often what he finds is what he carries inside. If we are too busy looking outside, obsessed with the culture of productivity and accustomed to an eminently pragmatic language, reading poetry will be an exercise too futile and convoluted. Then we give up. We do not realize that this inability to play with signifiers is the expression of a playful inability to enjoy beyond what is given and expected in life.
Han, B. (2020) La desaparición de los rituales. Herder: Barcelona.