Last week I decided to finally catch up with twenty-first century technology and get a smartphone. My new iPhone arrived on Monday night and I’ve spent a few days figuring out how to use it and how to integrate it into my life. Although I generally understand new technology fairly easily, I tend to be a reluctant adopter and slow to jump on the bandwagon of new trends. Using a smartphone has really shaken up my world this week. I’ve been using email for years, but the experience of checking my email has always been bounded by a computer. I had to sit down at the computer, click on the browser, and log in to my email program. Although checking it gradually became an unconscious act, reading my email has always been an event bounded by particular time and space constraints. Now, my email messages are available to me anytime and anywhere, in a continual flow of information. Communication that was once fairly strictly divided between phone and computer is all now mixed together and I can communicate with all my different friend groups by a phone call, chat, or message at any time. Plus, the interface for all my usual programs looks quite different on a smartphone from my computer. The experience of using a smartphone for the first time has been simultaneously liberating and disconcerting.
This shake-up of my usual communication methods has got me thinking about defamiliarization. In the smartphone context, what this term means is that a new interface for Facebook on my phone changes the way I view it and may cause me to interact with it in a different manner. However, defamiliarization has also been on my mind all month because April is National Poetry Month. Literary theorist Roman Jakobson described poetry as “organized violence committed on ordinary speech”; in other words, poetry’s function is to shake up our perceptions of the world by forcing us to look at ordinary things in an extraordinary way. Poetry is the loose stone on a familiar path that trips us up, the splash of color on a gray canvas, the unexpected discordant note in the middle of a harmonious song.
I can think of many poems that have changed my view of the world over the years. Some of my earliest memories of reading are poems—“The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat”, “The Owl and the Pussy Cat” and “My Shadow” all introduced me to new vocabulary words and unique rhymes and syntax. I can remember my delight at reciting Carl Sandburg’s poem “Fog” and imagining the morning fog as a friendly cat, creeping in to cover my town. As I grew older I was introduced to more types of poetry and fell in love with strict meters and rhyme schemes; for many years sonnets have been my weakness, whether written in Spanish, Italian, or English. Whenever I feel like the world has become boring and mundane, I pick up some poems to remind myself that there can be surprising amounts of beauty and wisdom found in just about anything if you look at it the right way. This week I have been reciting A. E. Housman’s well-known lines every time I glance out my front window to see my glorious cherry tree in full bloom:
Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.
Now, of my threescore years and ten, 5
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room, 10
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.
Do you have a favorite poem or poet? What experiences, or poems, have made you see the world in a new way?