Jan 29, 2013

Hamlet's Words, Words, Words and "America" by Tony Hoagland

I assume no one would choose to have diarrhea. Is it therefore safe to assume that people (Americans only?) do not choose to suffer from logorrhea—compulsive, excessive talking? So it is some kind of affliction, like the flu, which has come upon us as a culture.

(What follows will make more sense if you take a minute to skim readers’ and my comments following the last post, January 26. Also, please believe me when I say I wrote this before stumbling onto Tony Hoagland’s poem, “America.”  I feel pretty lucky to have found a piece so connected to my own, though Hoagland and I both might be belaboring the obvious.) 

Why have we become such speechifiers?  If we are a gabbier bunch than we were in the decades up to about 1980 (to paint with a broad brush),  what is it we need to say and why do we need to say it, over and over, breaking the sound barrier, as it were, at the speed of light, as it were? Are we confusing that with better communication? More is more?

In the old days, farmers, industrial laborers and housewives were much more solitary creatures, by necessity. They did stuff that had to be done. There was a lot of physical work, and there weren’t many chances to run at the mouth. Even at church and school, the preachers and teachers did most of the talking.

By supper, those workers had more or less forgotten how to speak about things beyond necessities: “Pass the sugar” and “Shut up, boy.”  It was a four-hundred-year period of American grunting, except for ridicule-gathering politicians and snake oil salesmen. 

When you’ve grunted in the fields or the on assembly line all day, you don’t just convert to Shakespearean eloquence or Cartesian reasoning because a bell rings. And sensing your limitations with words, you’re afraid of sounding foolish if you speak—or your thoughts and feelings are more complex than you could ever make clear with your mouth.

In the last three or so decades most work has become sedentary. Much of it—like cold-calls or face-to-face sales or creation of documents that no one can understand—involves some skill with language, and skill begets use. You don’t just turn off the language dildo because it’s 5:00 p.m. You go home and make more talk. Home is where everybody talks or types at once. It’s like the mall, but not as good because there are fewer people and the lights aren’t as bright.

Talking isn’t really doing anything. You don’t grow tomatoes by talking about tomatoes—and talking to tomatoes at the volume and speed of today’s American speech would likely them.

Physical labor must be important stuff if you’re investing that kind of energy in it. You’re making stuff. Of course you’re also just paying the rent, but you’re creating beans or wheat or hubcaps or poems. What’s to talk about? Do the work.

When that making disappears, there’s a void. There’s nothing to show for a day’s work. You haven’t changed the look of the field; you haven’t welded a fender; you haven’t sewn the cloth; you haven’t swept the dust from the sidewalk. All you’ve done all day is make noise with your mouth.

Often as not, no one replies, at least not in the way you desire. You grow desperate and keep talking because you want someone to hear, because you have nothing to do but sit around thinking about what you want, what you don’t have, which is the feel of a person, animal, or thing responding to you—as a pasture does, in slow generosity.

For comfort, you turn to Starbucks. You get all cranked up, which makes you talk more and more and more, louder and faster.

You are too busy making noise to think about content. So things like athletic achievement become meaningless, even though it’s both an art form and a rehearsal for new wars that will arrive and arrive. Who has time for sports? Poor kids. Minorities. Not our kind of people.

But your kid needs recognition.  He isn’t very good, but he shows up for every game and practice, except for the days he doesn’t feel like it, or has piano lessons, or dance lessons, or introductory Mandarin lessons, or Taekwondo lessons, because God knows, the world has become global, the planet has become a globe that’s as global as the economy, a globe that’s now complicated in previously unimaginable ways, and you can’t have too many skills in such a place, which, by the way, is getting pretty close to Utopia, what with all our gadgets and different noises.

So you keep caffeinating yourself and taking lessons and making noises. Move and talk, move and talk, and soon enough, please God, someone will talk back, say the things you need to hear, fill the hollow in the middle of you, and life will be a fruity, low-fat cornucopia.

N.B.  I make no claim of practicing what I preach. 

America by Tony Hoagland : The Poetry Foundation



Brenda's Arizona said...

The poem... I was expecting the Simon and Garfunkle song.

What a bunch of too rich, spoiled Americans! That is all I can say - and I never say that.

Where did you take the 'tree in the mall' photo? Interesting!

Brenda's Arizona said...

Whoops, maybe I made a huge assumption. I'll just stick with 'too "rich", spoiled".

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, the mall is in suburban Detroit--you know, the city that looks like a bombed out war zone, or post-apocalyptic ruins, or a Martian landfill . . . . To be fair, some of the place is in serious disrepair. But I ask, as you sort of do, are elaborate malls in the 'burbs the best medicine?

Hannah Stephenson said...

Hm...we do talk a lot.

I have to admit I am very chatty. I talk on the phone with friends for a loooooong time.....have coffee dates and talk talk talk.

But a good portion of this talking has some content, I swear. I think we are starved for content and authenticity.

Anonymous said...

Samuel Johnson wasn't known for brevity, but you might agree with this: "When a language begins to teem with books, it is tending to refinement; as those who undertake to teach others must have undergone some labour in improving themselves, they set a proportionate value on their own thoughts, and wish to enforce them by efficacious expressions; speech becomes embodied and permanent; different modes and phrases are compared, and the best obtains an establishment. By degrees one age improves upon another. Exactness is first obtained, and afterwards elegance. But diction, merely vocal, is always in its childhood. As no man leaves his eloquence behind him, the new generations have all to learn. There may possibly be books without a polished language, but there can be no polished language without books."

i.e., of the hundred words we speak, only ten are worth writing down. That's what makes writing so exciting -- finding the ten.

Banjo52 said...

Hanna, I was doing some wink wink till your final line. That's really interesting, provocative. Thanks!

AH, I never read Dr. Johnson, though some very credible people practically memorize him. So your passage is exceptionally interesting and it sounds valid (I'm not qualified to say for sure).

And btw, if anyone's looking for a working definition of "aphorism" or "epigrammatic," you can find a few in AH's quotation. On the negative side, maybe also definitions of "sententious," "bombastic," "didactic," "pedantic." But those words aren't as off-putting when the author/speaker has something important to say, as Johnson does.

Ken Mac said...

This goes along rather well with a recent NY Times OP ed about Amtrak's Quiet Car, how society is all noise these days, from malls to parks to public transport. Reflection? Quiet? WTF!
I agree re Amish land...I was surprised to see the usual roadside commercial fare at the Shartlesville turnoff, it wasn't there the last time -- early 00s-- that I passed. But Haags remains a gem.

Rune Eide said...

I have looked at this post several times, but admit to problems with commenting it (except for the usual high standard of the photography). Maybe it gets to specific American. On the other hand: Talk - instead of action is a global phenomenon. And talk as an artificial fog that we surround us with is likewise universal. In addition we have all the "new" words coined by the spin-doctors to translate direct communication into a kind of bureaucratic innocuous nonsense. Perhaps the best example is: Civilians killed my military action > collateral damage.

PS Thank you for the comment! I'm afraid you put to much symbolism into my poor photo of a multifaceted, curved mirror :-)

Banjo52 said...

Ken, thanks for those examples. I don't want to make too much of the issue, but when I'm in the woods or by the ocean, the silence or the noises of nature are so different that everything in my typical day seems like a mall or a subway station. To need a lot of chatter on top of all that machinery . . . . Even when I'm the one causing it, I wonder what this need for noise is all about.

RuneE, Your "talk as an artificial fog" is precisely the kind of thing I'm trying to get at. And your fine point about spin-doctors and "bureaucratic innocuous nonsense"--I'd say you've done a dandy job of commenting. Thanks!

As for my seeing too much symbolism at your place, that's the way an English teacher rolls. We've never seen an object we couldn't turn into a symbol. :)

Lovers' Lane