In Praise of the Poetry Sloth

poetry sloth

The sloth, that most beautiful and temptingly anthropomorphic of animals, has for too long been used unfairly as a metaphor for idleness (unfairly metaphormosed, perhaps – ho, ho). It’s time, in my view, to celebrate a creature which should represent not laziness, listlessness, and inertia but careful and, yes, slow – but fully alert and thoughtful – movement through the branched entanglements of modern life.
It is almost a truism that we should all slow down and bit in the face of early twenty-first century existence, whose pacemaker is no longer the movement of the sun or even the tick of the clock but the constant and frenzied whirl of social media, powered by ‘likes’, those ultra-addictive ‘bright dings of pseudo-pleasure’, as Justin Rosenstein, their Facebook inventor, called them. Of course, we all need to step back and recalibrate. But if there is one activity in life where we should really, really slow down, surely it is as readers. This goes for reading any text but I’m principally thinking about reading words, i.e. literary texts. On Twitter at the end of last year (and this is presumably not the first year this has happened but the first I’ve noticed) was the peculiar sight of people advertising to the world the number of books they had read that year (and the numbers tended to be unattainably high by most people’s standards 100, 150, 200…and higher), the subtext of course being: the higher the number, the more literary/intelligent/skilled etc. the reader. Frankly, I would have preferred to see someone bragging about having read only one book in a year, having spent a day on each page, considering it, weighing up its effect and the techniques and strategies used by the writer. I think I would have tapped the ‘like-heart’ on that tweet. That show-off would have won my respect as a Literature Sloth – because there are not enough of them around.
Marcel Proust began writing A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu in 1909 and it was, famously, still unfinished at his death thirteen years later in 1922. This massive tome is not only the masterpiece of 20th century literature, it is (more importantly today perhaps) the Anti-Tweet. I began reading it, by a coincidence that I’ve only just realized as I write this, exactly 100 years after Proust began writing it, in 2009. I’ve still not finished it in 2019 so I guess I have three years left if I want to complete it in less time than it took the great man to write it; but I must admit I don’t, particularly. I like my slow approach. I pick it up, read a few pages, put it down, think about it, read other things, forget about it for a bit, pick it up again two weeks later, read a few pages, put it down again, etc. Over the last ten years it has become an important part of my life, which I really don’t want to lose, and so I’m happy to keep plodding through it (I’m about a third of the way through The Prisoner, the fifth of its seven volumes) and if I happen to die before I finish, well, that’s okay. This is, I suppose, a humblebrag as I’m advertising the fact that I’m reading Proust, even if I’m doing so slowly. It’s also a little disingenuous because it’s not like I’ve got much choice, I’m a slow reader by nature – I’ve never been able to read quickly and never taken the time to learn (the speed-reading book by Tony Buzan that I got in my teens sits on my shelf now as it has for thirty years). But I use myself as an example of the Literature Sloth because I think I’m getting something from Proust that those who dash though him in, say, six months, miss. I’ve had time to get to know intimately Marcel, his family, his girlfriends, his social acquaintances etc. And I’ve had time to forget parts of the earlier books, books which I read nine or ten years ago during a part of my own life which was very different to my life now – so Remembrance of Marcel’s Things Past becomes indivisible from remembrance of my own life.
In some ways, prose asks for a quick reading, narrative whisking readers along the way it does, sucking them into its ever-present event-horizon; our eyes slipping easily along the slick rail of the written line. Long novels especially tempt us to rattle through them, skipping words and sentences – subordinating stasis (looking un-movingly at a single word or even letter) to the ever-unattainable light-speed flash of meaning-consumption, story arc, and the need for conclusion. From one side of the page to the other, over and over, the actual words disappear, and they are replaced with a different world, the world of narrative – or at least a world built through narrative. This is all no doubt fairly 1.01 Prose Theory stuff and I mention it only to contrast it with poetry, which tends towards the static rather than the dynamic, prioritising word-choice over the sentence flow, and exposing individual letters amongst words. Narrative is there sometimes of course but even then, when compared with prose, the number of words involved is so much lower (how much longer would even the Iliad have been if it had been written – all of it, without edits – in prose?) that the relative value of each individual word is much higher. To one degree or another, poetry tinkers on the periphery of stasis. It is not a chaotic city, but a complex jungle. And this is the realm of the Poetry Sloth, because any reader who rushes through a poem at prose-speed will see at best the distorting perspectives from a train rushing through the countryside, and at worst little more than a blur. The eye must slow down, so that the brain can engage poetically rather than prose-ishly.
To continue my sloth re-metaphormosis (because I’m enjoying it) the Poetry Sloth is a sub-species of the Literature Sloth, but even slower, even more careful, and even more discerning of every leaf of language it chews on. Literature as commerce – i.e. the industry – wants us all to be Poetry Dogs dashing around the forest floor sniffing madly and gobbling down whatever we find before moving on to the next morsel; and social media brings out the dog in all of us. But up in the trees I think everyone will find, if they look, the peaceful face of a Poetry Sloth considering in careful slow-motion every mouthful it chomps and gazing sagely at a single piece of tree.
Hurray for the Poetry Sloth!

4 thoughts on “In Praise of the Poetry Sloth”

  1. I did a speed reading course a few years ago and at the end we were tasked with reading War and Peace in an afternoon. It’s about Russia


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