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Between Alpha and Omega: Some Observations on Poetry and Poetry’s Task in our Time

Literary Themes

Between Alpha and Omega: Some Observations on Poetry and Poetry’s Task in our Time

We lived heretofore in the multitude of villages scattered world-wide amongst the ruins of the Tower of Babel. Civilization’s tapestry, its complicated patterns interwoven from multitudes of poets and poetries, once covered their walls and held our attention. Will there come to be in the global village but one faceless, boring bard who speaks with the reduced, infinitely reductive voice the simplified and platitudinous messages of the Media?

Between Alpha and Omega: Some Observations on Poetry and Poetry’s Task in our Time 1

Georg Slickers

The Greek symbols “alpha” [?] and “omega” [?] stand as the opening and closing signs for two letters of the alphabet, which represents the sound of words. Figuratively, in the West they refer to what is termed the “Beginning” and “End” of all things: Time and Space, before the creation of what we call the “Creation,” and after that apocalypse when Time must have its stop. As for what came before, we may think of it as darkness and silence, what the Hebrews called Tohu and Bohu, a void without form; and as for what may come after, we have no term for it, so Tohu and Bohu may serve. Ludwig Wittgenstein was brought to a standstill when he was obliged to say, “We must remain silent concerning what we cannot speak about.” (Wovon Mann nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss Mann schweigen. [Proposition #7, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus] ) Reason enjoins our silence. That is the way of the philosopher.

It is not the way of the poet. When we think of another philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, we may recall his view that in their origin all words were once poems. Since Mankind speaks in words, all men are essentially poetical because language is. (And, it is woman who speaks to her infant, whose voice it may be said is first heard months before it is separated from her body to come into the world crying cries that are not yet words.) In short, there is our silence before we are born, and our silence after we are dead.

Commencing with the ‘ah’ of Alpha, there is speech. Living things communicate, perhaps all living things, from bacteria to whales. So far as we know, however, only our species is a poetical animal. That’s the way we are, asleep and awake. Words, words, words. Poems, poems, poems.

Not to elaborate on the history of language, let’s go to a simple formulation so far as poetry in the West is concerned, although with suitable translations and conversions it probably applies everywhere and anywhere. That is, poetry always manifests at its core three principle modes: the elegiac, the satiric, the invocational.

The elegiac is generally thought of as mournful, melancholic, plaintive; it is lamentation, and refers to persons or things and emotions or situations vanished, lost or dead. (I include songs of love because these seek to find or know or describe that which one desires and does not or cannot have; what one wishes to be joined to, especially since the object of desire is lost in almost the same moment it is had and loved, because we are creatures conscious of time. To describe the beauty of a person or thing is to apprehend its having been lost even as we utter endearments and praise expressing our joy. In English poetry, the simplicity we think of as like that of the archaic Greek lyric seems to have begun to fade in the early 1500s; by Shakespeare’s day towards the end of the century, it is already self-conscious and quite suffused with irony. Pure love lyrics are rare after Herbert and Vaughn, who were prepossessed by and devoted to speech evoking the mystical divine. That is probably the progress in other traditions, if one surveys their development and change.

The satiric mode is speech that manifests full, intellectualized, or critical consciousness. It includes the making of charm and curse, magic and the power to kill with words. Those features are probably at the heart of poetry from the start, since we are creatures of dual nature, a mixture of good and evil. It also has to do with laughter, which is complex, whether we laugh with or at something or someone absurd. Satiric poetry may derive from our tendency to animism, to putting souls and life into things so as to tame and control them with words. Beneath that civilized form lies the savage dance of fertility and slaughter and sacrifice, and beyond that lurks the prehistorical power of the shaman, which is found everywhere.

The invocational mode has to do with prayer, and takes many forms. Basically, it is speech that seeks to obtain what we do not have but hope to possess; also to avoid what may in future time come to pass. A human being is intrinsically the singular defective creature in this world. It lacks from birth what is needed to survive; it needs everything, from long care and training to what could be termed instruments of prosthesis — from the first shaped stones or bones for digging and hunting, to fire-making and so on. We need the help of anything we can lay our hands on or make. And we need the help of the world — of others, as well as the unknown and unseen. Perhaps the religious nature of humanity arises out of the condition of our being as we are. Hence we invoke the help of whatever things in the world, including those powers or the “Power” we imagine stands somehow, somewhere before it, over it and after it,. The speech that is invocational, that is prayerful, is speech asking, begging, imploring; speech that by praising or cursing tries to communicate with or deal with the unknown. One sees, too, that a love poem partakes implicitly of the invocational. Since we require more than our deficient solitary self, needing to love and to be loved, we seize upon the magical power of words to obtain it or whatever may bring “it” to us.


It has been taken for granted for hundreds of years, indeed since the invention of the printing press, that universal literacy is a good, an excellent, thing. In retrospect, we perceive that Gutenberg’s invention was one of the crucial steps out of the Medieval universe into the limitless and unknown ocean of universes we recognize today. It broke the monopoly held by the few literates, dispersing their control of information and knowledge held by a small elite, the clerisy. The power of what came jocularly to be called the Fourth Estate, that is, the press and journalism, was at the core of the series of revolutions that began with the dissemination of the Bible in vernacular translations, showed its full strength in 17th Century England, and then the American and French Revolutions a hundred years later. It is no accident that the goals of universal literacy and universal suffrage are part of the late 19th Century’s continuation of social, sometimes revolutionary, movements and change in Europe. In the 20th Century, the power of the media’s means of communication has gone far beyond the printed word, extending through broadcasting — radio and television — and recordings, both passive and now through linkings by wire and wireless, continuing to expand on the most intimate and personal level today by the proliferation of the handheld gadgets integrating voice and image. It promotes change and upheaval — but also integration — until what is developing today, as Marshall McLuhan put it fifty years ago, is actually, not metaphorically, a global village. And yet it can be seen as a direct extension of the primeval and primordial power of speech; or, put theologically, as our expression of the Word that was in the Beginning. Yet we know that a word is not by any means a simple, though it may be an elemental, thing. Perhaps it is the fundamental human thing.

Now, although in our time we are drowning in “communications,” by the sound, rather the noise, of voices pouring words and images into the world — until one is driven to contemplate an imaginary project like the building of a soundproof Noah’s Ark to float above the confused, tumultuous waves of babble like a universal tsunami sweeping our planet — it might be well to recall that reading poetry and listening to poetry is different from attending to the clatter of journalism or the “mass literature/entertainment” that permeates our waking and sleeping hours twenty-four/seven. If the tribe that once lived in a village had its local bard, what situation will obtain in the global village? One bard? One singer? Will that be served by the multifariously diverse uncounted millions of babblers chanting solipsistically to the world’s fiber optical web?

We lived heretofore in the multitude of villages scattered world-wide amongst the ruins of the Tower of Babel. Civilization’s tapestry, its complicated patterns interwoven from multitudes of poets and poetries, once covered their walls and held our attention. Will there come to be in the global village but one faceless, boring bard who speaks with the reduced, infinitely reductive voice the simplified and platitudinous messages of the Media? It might be said the Fourth Estate — which is today a compound of infonews and edutainment — will rule our world village as the only Emperor. In his novel called 1984, George Orwell prophesied that this Emperor’s many identical mouthpieces would write and broadcast his message in a controlled linguistic system termed Newspeak, the universal language of propaganda-information-indoctrination-entertainment-education that contained, eventually, but a few hundred words. It would be a language deliberately fashioned, not for feeling and thinking, remembering, imagining or recording the details, the facticity of the experience of our existence, but for insulating each person from all that consciousness provides by its means of generalizing thoughts and ideas, and rendering them in tendentious euphemisms that are not untruths but merely lies. Newspeak is the inverse of the poet’s language, not even its opposite or contrary, but the articulation of nothing related to the living world; certainly not the language of the writer, as Orwell’s hero learns when he begins to keep a secret (and forbidden) diary. In the mid-1930’s, the futuristic satire of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” predicted a negative Utopia. That novel’s protagonist was by profession a “writer” — of advertising copy — a scrivener trained to employ the contrived, limited and curtailed language of propaganda. When he learns — from the single remaining text of Shakespeare jealously possessed by a “savage” on a reservation for “natives” or “primitives” — what enormous power is immanent in the language of poetry, manifest and unconcealed power (if hidden from his own highly technological but deaf civilization), he is mortified and lost in despair. His despair may well come to be ours too, if we consider that his fictional “savage” is the last human who knows what poetry is.

Close to a century ago, at the dawn of Modernism, Ezra Pound was a force, a great proponent of various radical movements in poetry and the other arts. Some of his novelties derived from his study of Classical and Provençal poetry, as well as what he thought was the classical Chinese. His shibboleth? Poetry is news that stays news! Looking back from our 21st Century, it appears he was already defensive in proposing that poetry was a kind of superior — because transcendental — journalism. Poetry, as Pound declared, may be “news” in the sense that it’s the quintessential expression of “how it is with us” (a phrase Saul Bellow used to describe the task of the novelist). But in the global village now ruled by the Fourth Estate, news by its very nature is made, unmade, and re-made hourly. In point of fact, our 24/7 news not only does not stay news — it vanishes forever. Even though some might claim it is “preserved” on the servers of the world-wide web, as what once was news, what will be found, should anyone live long enough to view its endless contents, will be anything but poetry. For, as Orwell sardonically and bitterly put it in 1984, poetry, together with the recorded news of yesterday, will have been dropped by robotized workers at the Ministry of Information into the cremating flame of a “Memory Hole.”

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Jascha Kessler
Professor Emeritus of Modern English & American Literature, UCLA
Santa Monica, CA



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