Poetic Time In The Age Of Acceleration

It’s the moment that matters.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

The most advanced AI supercomputers are considered so awesome because of the speed with which they can process information, so far up to one quintillion calculations per second! For all the feverish hubbub stirred by humankind’s newest innovation, one wonders, though, if awe itself, encountered in poetic time, will be lost in this age of acceleration.

Poetic time is the opposite of the turbocharged tempo of intelligent machines. It apprehends reality by dwelling mindfully on those moments computation relegates in passing to mere data points.

It is worth slowing down along our quickening trajectory to reflect on the sage perspectives of two of the greatest poets of the 20th century, Octavio Paz and Czesław Miłosz, both muses of the moment whom I had the humbling privilege of knowing. 

When Time Stops

For Miłosz, good poetry expresses a sense of piety for being in a world that has “succumbed to a peculiar nihilism” in which experience “loses its colors. Grayness covers not only things of this earth and space, but also the very flow of time, the minutes, days and years.”

In such a dulled-down landscape, “abstract considerations are of little help or remedy,” the Nobel laureate put it to me in one conversation. “Poetry matters greatly in the face of this deprivation because it looks at the singular, not the general. It cannot look at things of this earth other than honestly, with reverence, as colorful and variegated; it cannot reduce life with all its pain and ecstasy into a unified tonality. By necessity it is on the side of being.”

For Miłosz, “mindfulness occurs in the moment when time stops. And what is time? Time is our regrets, our shame. Time contains all things toward which we strive and from which we escape. In that moment of time stopped, reality is liberated from suffering. Then, in art, you can have a purified vision of things independently of our dirt. Everything that concerns us disappears, is dissolved, and it does not matter whether the eye that looks is that of a beggar or a king.”

The “eternal moment” in the gaze of the Polish poet is like “a gleam on the current of a black river,” retrieved from movement by mindful attention. 

One of Miłosz’s poems perfectly illustrates this pious regard for those palpable moments of being that elude any abstract sense at the end of the road of existence. It reads in part:

I was running, as the silks rustled, through room after room without stopping, for I believed in the existence of a last door. 

But the shape of lips and an apple and a flower pinned to a dress were all that one was permitted to know and take away.

Floating On The Hour

Octavio Paz, also a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, put the nature of the moment in the larger frame of social evolution. He believed that “temporal succession no longer rules the imagination” after all of the abstract utopias of modern progress that didn’t pan out. As now recognized by quantum science, he saw that “we live instead in the conjunction of times and spaces, of synchronicity and confluence, which converge in the ‘pure time’ of the instant.” Coherence and equilibrium are “the momentary exception” in the random swirl of disequilibrium that is the rule.

As the poet explained further in a conversation in Mexico City back in the 1980s, “This time without measure is not optimistic. It doesn’t propose paradise now. It recognizes death, which the modern cult of the future denies, but also embraces the intensity of life. In the moment, the dark and the luminous side of human nature are reconciled. The paradox of the instant is that it is simultaneously all time and no time. It is here and it is gone. It is the point of equilibrium between being and becoming.”

He continued: “The instant is a window to the other side of time — eternity. The other world can be glimpsed in the flash of its existence. In this sense, poets have always had something to show modern man.”

While this recognition of time without measure may be new to the modern sensibility of the Western clock, Paz pointed out, it has long been intimated in the East through the traditional form of the haiku. This terse but evocative verse from the Edo-era Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō is a classic example:

Penetrating the rocks
The sounds of cicada

In his last poem, “Response and Reconciliation,” Paz conveyed his vision of time arrested using a similar metaphor as Miłosz to describe the eternal moment of being in the flow of becoming:

For a moment, sometimes, we see
—not with our eyes, but with our thoughts—
time resting in a pause.
The world half-opens and we glimpse
the immaculate kingdom
the pure forms, presences
unmoving, floating
on the hour, 
a river stopped.

If, as Paz said, poetic time had much to teach modernity, it has even more to teach the hastening era of hyper-modernity we are now entering.