Monday, March 21, 2011

Metaphor as Hyperlink

For reasons not altogether clear to me decades later, when I started my four-year Navy career, once aboard ship, I added a new word to a small notebook every day while at sea, usually from an instructional book or a novel. During long midnight watches in the South China Sea or Tonkin Gulf, I had plenty of time to think about etymologies.

I tried to use these words in my daily shipboard life but not enough to risk bodily harm. At this time Morse code was dying but had not yet been banished. This was a good playground as were signal (flashing) lights that were used when we were steaming "silent" and usually in tight formation. Most of this was in encrypted code but at times we could use the language of the day.

I had grown up in drab, post-World War II London (just before the Beatles saved us) and moved as a teenager to an equally drab Pittsburgh, PA where smoke from steel mills made the smog of my youth seem a mere nuisance. But within a few years I was eating fresh pineapples in Hawaii and swimming in the Mariana Trench off Guam. I realized later that leaving England, with its stuffy language and social mores, was a real blessing and an opportunity to learn the language of the seas, sky and monster typhoons.

What was most fascinating to me as a young man was the new geography served up by the coastlines of Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam. My teacher was a Japanese-born American, Navigator Lt. Iwatsu. Our navigation charts took us deep into the Japanese inland waters. We met adults, badly scarred, who had survived Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As we are seeing with the current tragedy in Japan, fear of radiation runs deep in the Japanese psyche. I wrote about this in my first book of poetry: That Kingdom Coming Business. ("The deep chill of Bungo Suido/coating the skin of our ship/in a cold Japanese dawn.")

I became an English teacher and eventually got a PhD because I felt literature offers precisely what makes us human and universal, allowing us to make deep connections across time, geography and consciousness. Of course, the metaphor is the workhorse carrier of this insight, allowing us to marry what otherwise might be impossible or unthinkable.

The other day I was watching a ProPublica and New School video on "Long-Form Storytelling in A Short- Attention-Span World" with The New Yorker's David Remnick, Frontline's Raney Aronson-Rath, This American Life's Ira Glass, and ProPublica's Stephen Engelberg. It's worth going to to view the entire video). Here I wanted to comment on one item discussed:  whether hyperlinking to the essence of a long-form piece might detract from the intent of the author and the richness that her language delivers. I think David Remnick had some concerns about this.

I don't know this answer to this but it is an interestng point as we decide what content looks like in our dynamic, multi-platform world. After all, words in the hands of a gifted writer ideally get to fundamental truth in a way that maintains complexity, holds a semantic tension, and leaves the reader more than half-fed. Larry Kramer has an interesting piece art today discussing why he won't pay for the Daily (but will for digital NYT).  His words: "But the Daily did little to advance the cause of journalism and less to take advantage of a dramatic new medium that will allow for fantastic new ways to tell stories. Instead, it took the newspaper publication cycle and redisplayed it, with a little video, not to particularly advance a story or make it more dramatic.  Several existing newspapers, especially the New York Post, do a better, more efficient job, of putting their newspapers content on the web,"

For better or worse the language of compression is already well underway--Twitter is five years old today and the world is well aware of the 140 character admonition. English teachers are now teaching to the text message. See Andy Selsberg article in the NYT. ( And Twitter is alive with poetry, a kind of post-industrial haiku. Hemingways's short and popular "A Clean Well-Lighted Place" is almost ready for Twitter.

I think it was Ira Glass who said on the video mentioned earlier that the 24-hour news cycle actually works to the advantage of storytellers because it generally lacks a narrative, character, point-of-view and tone. Six hundred thousand people who downloaded the weekly podcast seem to agree with him.

One of the panelists, when describing the value of slow-cooked stories, cited the difference between an art history class and a vigorous painting class.

Of course, we need both.



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