Late in life, Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan had to undergo brain surgery. It led to him theorizing about the left and right hemispheres of the brain.
Some media experiences are “hot” because they appeal to the left side of the brain. Other media experiences are best characterized as “cool” due to their activation of the right side.
What effect does the new digital technology have on our brains? Social media tosses the human mind into a state of perpetual distraction. It is a shallow experience of the “cool.”
Perhaps the best antidote to such digital distraction is the sacred space of prayerful attention. Extended meditation on the written word can refocus the soul. Think of it as a necessary “hot” experience, much like seeking warmth by a fire.
But as preparation for the prayerful contemplation of scripture, we can also train ourselves to attend to poetry in a “cool” way.
In the digital age, humans are giving themselves over to impulsive reactions to things. But making instant judgments, by “liking” things we think we immediately comprehend, is a very shallow emotional experience.
Deeper access to emotional fulfillment may be found by listening to poetry being recited aloud. Last month I was fortunate to hear theatre and television actor Richard Austin recite from memory the poetry of Father Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ, in a public performance at Trinity Western University.
Although I had seen and heard Austin do a recitation of Hopkins years ago, I was unprepared for how moved I was this time. Perhaps it is because Austin’s performances of Hopkins have never been better, given that he has slowly and carefully refined them over decades.
Yet in addition to the unsurpassed artistic craft of the performer, I also think it was the unusual experience of hearing poetry aloud that touched my soul. McLuhan would characterize it as a paradigmatically “acoustic” mode of experience.
This appeal to the “ear” is analogous to the simultaneous comprehension of an acoustic space, in which sound is all around us simultaneously. Its primary effect is emotional.
As with the acoustic space created during live music, poetic space is best characterized as holistic. We have to engage in the perception of abstract patterns and to embrace their symbolic dimension.
This requires a willingness to be receptive to the experience, to everything that surrounds us as we undergo it. It is an emotional and creative activity, in which we access our spiritual capacities.
Austin began his performance by reciting Hopkins’ poem Rosa Mystica, about the Virgin Mary, and it was one of four times that evening in which I experienced an intense, involuntary emotional rapture. People refer to this embodied aesthetic reaction in many ways (for example, as getting “goosebumps”), but it is very difficult to describe adequately.
Rosa Mystica has a refrain that repeats, but with variations. For me, it was a sublime, gently electric charge to hear words like this from Hopkins: “In the gardens of God, in the daylight divine / Make me a leaf in thee, mother of mine.”
McLuhan is right, I think, to contrast this “cool” type of “acoustic” experience with the “visual” experience of an “eye” that silently reads words on a page in a linear and sequential order, which appeals to the left side of the brain.
Silent reading is a more analytical experience of human speech, in which verbal access is analogous to mathematical thinking. On the page, in print, we subjugate words in a detailed and controlled way. But this intellectual control, with its mode of domination over the word, is wholly unlike the involuntary emotional reaction we are capable of accessing by hearing live poetry.
Along with As Kingfishers Catch Fire and The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo, I also experienced emotional bliss when I heard the words of Hopkins’ The Windhover.
McLuhan considered Hopkins’ greatest poem to be The Windhover. “There is no other poem of comparable length in English, or perhaps in any language, which surpasses its richness and intensity or realized artistic organization,” argued McLuhan.
“There are two or three sonnets of Shakespeare,” and one by Donne, that may rival it, wrote McLuhan, but yet “they are not comparable with the range of the experience and multiplicity of integrated perception” of The Windhover.
To hear The Windhover live is unforgettable. The “hot” experience of reading it silently cannot compare with the “cool” sensation of hearing it performed.
As McLuhan recognized, the “acoustic” experience of “the delicate interaction, at each moment of the poem, of all its cumulative vitality of logic, fancy, musical gesture” is nothing less than astonishing.