Saturday, July 9, 2016

Sunday Mini-Challenge: Shallows, Deeply

The tidal changes that are massively disrupting politics--as seen in the recent Brexit vote and the American presidential campaign--speak of forces that haven’t been adequately named yet. We are monkeys in a wind machine of change: But where's it coming from?

Much is now being written in the attempt to ken that breeze. In his superb essay, “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?" (July 11/18 issue of The New Yorker),  George Saunders asserts that divisions have grown so great between the political Left and the Right that it is impossible for either side to empathize, much less understand, the Other to any productive avail:

Where is all this anger coming from? It's viral, and Trump is Typhoid Mary. Intellectually and emotionally weakened by years of steadily degraded public discourse, we are now two separate ideological countries, LeftLand and RightLand, speaking different languages, the lines between us down. Not only do our two subcountries reason differently; they draw upon non-interesecting data sets and access different mythological systems.

So true—but there are so many other ways to read this wind, aren’t there? Think of the other data sets: race and guns; religion and modernity; old and young; wired and tired; have and have not; Wordpress and Blogger ... Visualizing this amorphous reality is like getting a new pair of glasses at the optometrist’s: first we have to go through many lenses as the view sharpens focus and aligns depth to periphery. Similarly, getting a bead on what's happening in the culture means fitting one lens then another to this eye than that, then together, aiming closer to focus. Elite or mass? Black Lives Matter or Police Lives Matter? Tweet or Feed? To and fro goes a fray which already feels swept far to sea.

I sense a lot of it stems from the disruptions of the digital age. The tech revolution which has made corporate giants of Google and Facebook to the point that traditional media like newspapers are crumbling to dust. (Traditional culture has faded fast, too.) Our alien overlords rule us through smart phones attached to our eyes by invisible chains.

What makes disruption so hard to understand and see is that very little of the "real" world changes. Walk outside: it’s the same damned day or night, unchanged for the past 20 million years even though the online spike in your head has all but defeated time and space zooming toward infinite reach and access. The digital replica of that world is as insubstantial as the consciousness which lurks about our physical brains, the ghost not of reality but an oracle meaningful only to algorithms.

in his book The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains, Nicholas Carr writes that our brains themselves have been disrupted by digital media, our neural wiring re-routed, so that we now think fleetingly, distractedly, widely but without depth, without concentration or meditation. "What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation," he writes. "Whether I'm online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski."

If that's the case, then maybe the great surge of dark phenomena (ISIS, Facebook, Pulse, Brexit, Trump, Black and Blue Lives Matter) looks increasingly strange to us because we aren't conceiving of them with the same brains anymore. Perhaps our world is becoming too complex because our conceptions are hairbraining out.

Of course, there still a Resistance at work against such things—am I right, O my bruthas and sistas of the Pond?  Thank our varied gods and beer bawdesses that we float over an immense shared verbal depth. Still lots to find down there. According to some studies, "deep reading"—exhibited most voluminously by reading poems— fires the brain up by immersing it in a rich bath of sensory detail and emotional, moral and intellectual complexity. It's slow going, savoring the heft and taste of words, allowing the allusions and metaphors to light up regions of the brain conducive to analysis, reflection, even empathy: But it’s a pretty good defense from becoming an empty reflection of shallows.

For your challenge today, let's show there still be dragons below and within and around us.  Find something deep in a shallow world.

And to make this somewhat true to a Mini Challenge, write deeply in a shallow space—use little, say much. (5 lines? 20? that's between you and The Succinct Muse.)

And if you’re wondering how to cover both bases at once—to go deep sparingly--consider these lines from a poem Rilke wrote shortly before he died in 1925:

… Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions  … For the god
wants to know himself in you.

(Transl. Stephen Mitchell)

Maybe whatever the world is turning into will feel greeted, accepted—perhaps even magnified— by what we share.   

Onward to deeper shallows!



  1. Hi Brandan, thank you for the prompt. I wrote something for it this morning, having checked it out beforehand. It is a little bit long if broken into lines for a poem, but it is rather prosaic, and I may put it into a prose form, in which case it would probably seem much shorter--wondering if that is okay? No worries if not. I can try to cut more, not sure. I have something else brewing too--k.

  2. Your post today is most well-timed, or indeed, specific for the times we have lived through this week, month, year. As an educator I can attest to the notion of people absorbing information differently. I have seen a huge change in 30 years - perhaps the internet age has impacted most significantly on the youth who have known no different. I also agree that poetry is an anodyne in this age.
    Long may the toads rule our own deep end of the shallow pool.

  3. Karin, have at it, counting lines is not the point, rather how much you make out of what seems little.

  4. Thanks. I've broken it into lines that fit the parameters at least on a technical level (ha) and also fit the piece. I'm not sure that's so deep honestly, or that I've made the most of it, but it is what came up for me on reading your excellent prompt. k.

  5. A very far reaching prompt that asks us to be far seeing, or far feeling, or perhaps both and more and even farther, in a constrained world. Times have gone beyond interesting to frankly frightening, and you nail a lot of the reasons--I will brood over it Brendan, and see what I can pull from the shallows of my puddled brain.

  6. An extremely challenging prompt, but I did try to fit some thoughts together for a time when complexity and depth has been replaced by tweets.

  7. I like to post an image and am having trouble with mine as everything I put that I make feels open to misinterpretation in an age where people, as you say Brendan, aren't looking very deeply--so will take some more time.

  8. Karin, I think that's where the Pond needs to embrace its differences. Challenging shallows inherently means coming up wrong to someone.

  9. Thanks, Brendan. Agreed and appreciated. k .

  10. Brendan, this is a brilliant and extremely well thought out prompt. I hope my poem at least approaches being worthy of your lofty call!

  11. " the great surge of dark phenomena (ISIS, Facebook, Pulse, Brexit, Trump, Black and Blue Lives Matter) ".... need to add Hillary Clinton to this list if Trump is on it... :) But it is hard (IMO) to lump any of these with ISIS... that to me is a whole other "level". Thanks for the prompt. I will try and ponder this with five lines... Thanks for the Rilke example...

  12. More of a pondering or observational poem... Not too many dragons or such. :)

  13. 'What rough beast ... ?' Hopefully we can do better than that, but it will surely take some doing!

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  15. Did you all read Juan Felipe Herrera's recent piece on Poem-a-Day? I think it's apropos

  16. So good to be here...thank you for the inspiration, Brendan!!

  17. Apropos topic for the day. Thank you. Mine will not be popular nor politically correct in many minds. But it worked fairly well.

  18. Hi Brendan! Sorry I only got around to this but I've been promoting the Summer Reading Challenge in schools in our area and everything's been a bit topsy-turvy. Only two more to do and I'll be back to normal.

  19. Just got it together Brendan

    much love...


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