“I hold it towards you”: lyric, absence and my absent laptop

I’m writing this on Friday evening without internet. Of course, by the time you read it, I shall necessarily have transferred this document to a networked machine. But that will be at work, and at home I am not online. The reason is that my flat was burgled, and my Lovely New Laptop stolen (I’m writing on the old and rickety laptop, whose ethernet port doesn’t work, and I don’t have wireless). The burglary was less traumatic than I would have imagined. The thieves (in my mind there were two; of course I don’t know this) broke the locks of the window, opened it and entered. (It’s a ground floor flat). Then they took the laptop, not forgetting the power cable, and put it into my rucksack and left, having first emptied the rucksack of everything else (so that they couldn’t be caught with a bag full of things with my name on, showing it wasn’t theirs: the policewoman kindly explained this).

I would rather it hadn’t happened, of course; I shall now take greater care about security and keeping valuables out of sight; I resent the amount of time and hassle I’ve spent and will spend with insurance, buying a new computer, etc.; waiting for the police and locksmith and then winding down afterwards lost me sleep, and I value sleep. But I can’t say I feel especially violated: it could have been quite different, if they had gone through the flat systematically, or crapped on the floor or something. But as it was, they just went in, picked up the laptop, and went out again. Most importantly, I think I am pretty well backed up, and haven’t lost meaningful work.

However, I don’t like being without internet at home. Or I don’t think I do. I keep wanting the kind of instant access to information that the internet brings, and I am annoying my girlfriend by insisting that she check my email for me every time I phone her. Because I had to come home to talk to a man from the letting agency about security and windows (not microsoft windows: real ones), I took work home on a memory stick. This consisted of writing a lecture for first years about some fragments of early Greek lyric. It will come in an introductory course about Greece from Homer to the end of the Persian Wars, and I want to show the students a) that this material fits into their (basically historically structured) course in interesting ways, and b) that this is not the only way of looking at it (i.e., that its interest isn’t just as “evidence for” history, or “reflections of” it).

In my mind this came together with very vague thoughts about how I might be able to speak to a wider audience, especially in the light of Impact (see my previous post), without wasting their time, being stupid, or failing to communicate. I had been thinking about lyric as a kind of song/ poetry which creates, or plays with the idea of creating, present voices, and wondering vaguely about how this might be a way of talking to high school students of English literature about ancient poetry. This made me think of the poem by Keats where he describes “This living hand…”

(None of this, obviously, was very original. I probably got the idea of relating ancient lyric to this Keats poem from William Fitzgerald’s excellent book about Catullus.)

Dammit, I thought. If I were online, I could google this Keats poem now and get a text, and start thinking about it.

This was really silly. Actually, while my Greek books are in the office, I have quite a few books of English poetry at home. I get quite cross when it appears that a student is working online only, and refusing to open one of those big wodges of paper tied together down the left hand side even where this is clearly necessary, but I was thinking the same way. This is bad: after all, unlike the students, I am actually old enough to remember the world Before Web…

The Keats poem wasn’t in the first book or the second, but it was in the third. Here it is, not copied from the web, but typed by my own living hand:

This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

And in the icy silence of the tomb,

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood

So in my veins red life might stream again,

And thou be conscience-calmed – see here it is –

I hold it towards you.

Especially if one knows that this was written in the margin of another poem, and think of it in manuscript (and thus read “This living hand” as “This living hand, which is now writing” – grasping a pen?), it’s natural to think of the hand somehow reaching through the book to us. Perhaps the dead speaker is in a kind of suspended animation, until we read (in this respect analogies in Greek poetry might be in inscribed epigram rather than lyric). It’s not too hard to imagine our own attention as readers as a kind of gift of blood to the dead poet – blood for the ghosts – and a characteristic achievement of lyric is that it creates a voice with which we necessarily feel a kind of relationship, perhaps even the kind of responsibility where we might feel that we owed that attention (and thus needed to be conscience-calmed).

But it makes me wonder what an equivalent kind of poem might look like which paid attention to new patterns of presence and absence created through new technologies. One of the things I thought about was the strange effects of seeing ourselves on screen: I’m aware of this recently because I’ve started using skype. Here, if you use the video function, you can see both your own moving picture on the screen and the photo of the person you’re talking to. I like the effect that it creates if you make as if to give something to the other person, holding your hand towards the screen.

When young people’s deaths are reported, it is increasingly becoming common for the papers and TV to show the electronic trace they left behind, on facebook or blogs, to look at which might provoke a similar combination of engagement and alarm to that which Keats’ hand brings. Lots of us will leave our electronic selves behind to continue after our deaths.

Presumably some of our ancestors read Keats’ poem and thought about how strange it was to have photographs of the dead.

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