Michael T. Young’s beautiful literary and political essay on the human voice, in the full meaning of that word.
Habitation of the Human Voice
By Michael T. Young
In the wake of Trump’s election, there is a growing claustrophobia about the world. The streets feel narrower, the air harder to draw into the lungs. What feels safe is less clear, especially for my family and friends who are a beautiful medley of races and religions. Against that shrinking space, against that claustrophobia, I think of Rilke in the first Duino Elegy telling us to “Throw armfuls of emptiness out to the spaces that we breathe,” that “maybe the birds will sense the expanded air flying more fervently” (20). These lines strike a deeper note than any imposed divisions we would make on our humanity. As other lines from that elegy say, “But the living are wrong in the sharp distinctions they make” (25).
Whatever we think we know about the world and its politics, however we approach them, each of us is reducible to the existential reality of our own consciousness confronting the vast silences and emptiness stretching out, as far as we know, to infinity. That is the primal terror every human faces. There is a kinship between that and an oppressive or constricting power. Equally, there is a kinship between the human voice and its opposition to oppression, to constriction, to the indifference of nature and the indifference of authoritarian forces.
The poet Adam Zagajewski has a short poem appropriately titled, “Moment.” It goes
Clear moments are so short.
There is much more darkness. More
Ocean than firm land. More
Shadow than form.
Nature’s universe is largely silent and dark. We live on those tenuous, clear moments that punctuate it. The utterance of those clear moments comes through the human voice, embodied in language, either in speech or song. Even when that voice is a potential sizzling in the ink on a page, waiting to be read or uttered, its complex beauty and clarity bodies forth against that shadow and gives, as Shakespeare said, “to airy nothing, a local habitation and a name” (66). Herein lies the powerful poignancy of a song like Radiohead’s “How to Disappear Completely.” Toward the end of it, Yorke’s voice merges into the instrumental portion, howling in tune with the keyboards. As beautiful as it is, we are listening to the death of the human. The instruments are like a wind howling through a dilapidated building. The single human presence in the song disintegrates into that vacancy. It’s a song which is an existential reversal of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Aim was Song.”
The Aim was Song
Before man came to blow it right
The wind once blew itself untaught,
And did its loudest day and night
In any rough place where it caught.
Man came to tell it what was wrong:
It hadn’t found the place to blow;
It blew too hard–the aim was song.
And listen–how it ought to go!
He took a little in his mouth,
And held it long enough for north
To be converted into south,
And then by measure blew it forth.
By measure. It was word and note,
The wind the wind had meant to be–
A little through the lips and throat.
The aim was song–the wind could see.
Nature’s thoughtless wind is redirected into deliberate articulation through the power of song. Deliberateness, hear called “measure,” transforms the accidental into beauty, into meaning. It has a larger significance which is that such articulation stands in opposition to the inhumanity of nature: its predation and parasitism, its decay, its endless stretches of emptiness and darkness that make up most of the universe; against that terrifying vacuum, the human voice opposes itself. Everything from the Iliad to Notes from Underground to Emma Lazarus’s poem on the Statue of Liberty are a bulwark, the wall of a fortress. It is why poetry is vital in the most peaceful of times, because it is not merely a sound, a grunt or howl, but a clarity, a crisp articulation of an internal reality beating back against the omnipresent silences that will, sadly, in the end, consume it. Its moment in the sun is all it has but it is glorious, and a glorious assertion, a valiant and beautiful uniqueness against the seemingly endless monotony of dead space. As Frost famously put it, the figure a poem makes is “a momentary stay against confusion.”
This clarity of art does not elevate us above nature but rather, elevates our nature. It is the best version of the human animal. Poetry at its best does not, in its multiplicity of voices, deny that dirt and muck out of which the human voice rises, it rather acknowledges their necessity. Poetry is the dirt conjured into consciousness, witnessing itself rise in that oddity we call self-awareness and which even modern physics has a difficult time explaining. It is why a Gerald Stern poem celebrating vulgarity is a celebration of our humanity. If anything we little humans create can record the quintessence of consciousness, it is song, poetry, and art; it is every word, struck note, or paint-stroke set in its place in the sequence of disclosure. Could the history of the human race be distilled, like wine into brandy, that brandy would be humanity’s art; poetry is our true history. Perhaps that’s why Mnemosyne is the mother of the Muses.
This is what makes clichés and platitudes an offence. They are not merely tedium but a human voice embodying a linguistic version of oblivion. They are not just a failure of imagination, they border on a failure of humanity. This opposition of the human voice against monotonous space echoes within any totalitarian state and is why the autocrat silences all dissenting voices. The autocracy presents itself as a force of nature, or, that is, a power whose motion is inevitable, as destiny. It isn’t opposed to choice, it simply assumes there is no choice. Thought and debate are not a part of its structure any more than whether one obeys gravity is a part of one’s daily decisions. In its thoughtlessness its linguistic corollary is unvaried repetition and why the language of the autocrat is like the drone of hard rain on a roof: it demands not only submission to monotony but a eulogizing of it. It requires unconscious obedience from a conscious being. Thus the totalitarian state is kin to the monotony of the vast indifferent vacuum that surrounds our planet. The party line that must be towed by all is presented as inevitable rather than the decision of people, as infallible because inevitable. Gravity doesn’t make a mistake, it simply exists.
Trump’s speaking style, its string of desultory subjects that sometimes don’t even conclude, its non sequiturs, repetition of limited vocabulary drown any human coherence and reasoning in a flood of mere emotion. His language is a river shoving everything along its relentless course. His tendency to turn to ad hominem attacks or mere derision as a response to critics betrays a profound deficiency, not only of linguistic and intellectual ability, but even of character and humanity. In the regularly delicate diplomatic situations a President is confronted by, such deficiencies could prove catastrophic. His knee-jerk response to situations and comments shows someone easily manipulated by circumstance, someone who doesn’t make deliberate responses but merely reacts. He moves by impulse, like a flower tilting simply because the sun moves across the sky. He’s a mechanism, and as such, he is opposed to all things human, all things of humanity. The idea of a poem itself, the many labored choices over rhythm, sound, image, syllable, syntax and structure, theme and subject all run counter to that impulsive nature. As a poet, I find it profoundly difficult to imagine someone like Trump could fathom the joy of a poem or any work of art. Outside gathering items around his person to glorify himself, I can’t conceive he has the ability to comprehend the real value of art.
The finitude of the autocrat and his autocracy will always be reached. The infinite is only the province of God and inhuman quantities like space and time. But all creations of men both beautiful and ugly, both vulgar and eloquent, both political and artistic are finite. The poet in an autocracy, even if he does nothing more than speak to the existential reality of us all, reminds the autocrat of his finitude and that is an affront to him. It isn’t dissent, of course, but it is offense. The poet here is like Hamlet walking the halls of the castle who, with his obsessive considerations, refuses to let anyone hide from their conscience regarding the reality of the moment and the reality of the only truly inevitable thing: their own death. For the poet and those who savor their words, they embrace that realization and are suddenly free. They feel the spaces expand. They need to go outside and throw that emptiness back and see the birds fly into that expansion as Rilke tells us. But the autocrat discovers that the constriction he imposed on others turns back on him. His finitude is what he sought to escape. He fought for a way to create his own infinity enshrined in the state but instead, in the words of the poet, finds his own end.
Frost, Robert. The Poetry of Robert Frost. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1969.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Duino Elegies. Trans. David Young. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978.
Shakespeare, William. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. New York: Washington Square Press, 1958.
Zagajewski, Adam. Tremor: Selected Poems. Trans. Renata Gorczynski. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1985.