“The aspects of things that are most important for us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. (One is unable to notice something — because it is always before one’s eyes.) . . . And this means: we fail to be struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein
The question of what moves us — to say, do, think, imagine, and more — is an awesome and seemingly unquenchable one. I’m not sure, then, what moved me or what led me to the annual LSE Literary Festival, itself an inspired and energizing collection of panels, discussions, and events across a large variety of topics and perspectives. This is not the image I had in my mind of the London School of Economics. A cousin and acquaintances a few times removed attended the institution as students and I have met a colleague from there at conferences, but it remained in my imagination as a place of study of all things financial and economic. I was judging the book by the cover (which itself is a fantastical and unexpected adventure). Over the course of 48 hours, however, I was treated to a veritable “deluxe buffet” (Vegas style, that is, because cornucopia or smorgasbord don’t quite cover it; if you’ve seen a Vegas buffet, you know what of what I speak) of ideas that, strangely, increased in degree of familiarity and immediacy in relation to my own work as the two days unfolded.
On Thursday afternoon, I attended panel discussion about social class in England whose speakers used as their discursive springboard the publication of the book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones (2011). Talk quickly turned to questions of media representations of “the working-class” over time and the ways in which fictionalized media portrayals shape and are shaped by political press and public policy. Mr. Jones opened the discussion with fiery eloquence (the kind that leaves us when we leave our youth, and let us hope that never happens) and wove together a database-worth of facts, dates, policy decisions, and popular culture references for the first twenty minutes. One assertion at the heart of his contextualizing preface for the book’s existence was that “working class” has come to be seen as a slur in a world in which middle class – wealth, access, and the Bourdieuian notion of dispositions – is seen as the primary aspiration. (Hello social mobility, you old and never aging friend.)
Next I walked, in a bit of daze if I’m being honest, into a screening of two poetically-minded films and a reading of poems joined together by the theme “Poetry Unites.” It didn’t seem at all coincidental that one session should follow the other, as talk of increased divisiveness in the world and questions of who benefits from persistent demonization and criminalization of one set of practices were implicitly addressed by the collective readings of poems and poetic musings of an array of children and adults, alike. In a recent interview with the Al-Jazeera network, Kwame Anthony Appiah echoes another take on the tension that was the connective tissue across both sessions as he wisely notes, “We’re all citizens of the world, but we’re all different. And that’s a good thing.”
Same, different, unification and division. I sat with these thoughts while hearing from the filmmaker Ewa Zadrzynska, about her film “My favorite poem” and the larger project on which this film is based. Several participants in succession responded to prompts in the form of memories, narratives, recollections, and anecdotes that were filled with gesticulations, tilts of the head, eyes that were roving or quietly fixed on a spot somewhere above them as they got lost in their own memories. Each person in the film shared a rendition of his or her favorite poem. I wish I had written down the name of each of them, of any of them. But all I could do was listen, as they performed the words with voices that rose with the evocation of anticipation and moved their bodies in rhythm with the poetic cadence. One girl, aged nine, began to read a poem in Polish about a monster from a large book with a greenish cover. By the middle of the multi-stanza piece, she began to connect the words to one another and by the time she had recited two-thirds of the poem, she was in full song and wearing a broad smile that took up the entirety of her thin, heart-shaped face. The Poetry Unites film project was inspired by a similar project initiated in the United States by Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky called the Favorite Poem Project. Unlike the American version, Zadrzynska’s film project was intended to focus more on the people than the poems with a particular interest in those who were otherwise shy to share their lives on film. Poetry, she says, was a conduit for visibility. All of her participants eagerly talked about poetry in their lives.
I moved again when I listened to Philip Gross read from his recently published collection of poems entitled, “Deep Field,” that was written in response to his father’s loss of language due to deafness — his father, who once spoke multiple languages, now struggles to communicate in one. Gross wondered aloud, as he gathered himself in between his readings, “Where is a person when they aren’t with their words any more?” His was a deeply human and communicative question that felt at once intimate and universal. This framing of the query distinguished it in tone and meaning from others that related to more clinical aspects of aphasias or to linguistic ability and grammatical correctness. “Their words” suggests something held close. Each person has words. What happens when those words, each one born out of moment of need or play or discovery or pain or joy, that were once felt and used and relied upon, suddenly or gradually cease to exist? He was referring, it seemed, to a linguistic ghost limb.
Perhaps not ironically in the least, I found myself having — as in holding, experiencing, undergoing, feeling, witnessing — a philosophical moment. As if in that moment, even the platelets zipping through my veins understood in a new way the “know” in the statement “I know that I know nothing.” Attributed, either in this or a related form, to Socrates, this quote has played like a theme song since I first encountered it in this form less than a few years ago. But sitting in the audience, as talk of the way poetry can illuminate even it as makes oblique the very thing we wish to understand – as if, like the Magic Eye 3D images demand, looking beyond at what is not there in order to increase the clarity of the image hidden in plain sight – I felt awash with knowing. That is, I was keenly and viscerally aware, if only for the briefest of moments, that in fact, I know absolutely nothing. Is this perhaps because there is nothing to actually know in a world that is constantly changing? Or perhaps after all this time on earth, have I come to realize that I have in fact gathered nothing that you can actually know in the possessive sense of the word? But I am not a philosopher and these are musings for another post by another author.
The applause to the session hung in the air that had just previously been filled with poems and talk of poems. As the audience walked down either aisle of the lecture hall, an LSE student was at the ready with a copy of “Around the world in 80 lines” – a collection of four-line, philosophically-minded poems; a publication of Philosoverse, a group of students at LSE who are interested in the intersections between philosophy and poetry. I was indeed “struck by what, once seen, is most striking and most powerful.”
And then off I went to be a judge for a poetry slam. More on that and Part 2 to come…