What Are You Thinking About?

Every week, Michael and I meet online to talk about questions for Intellectual Roundtable. These conversations always start the same way: with the question, “What are you thinking about?”

The discussions we have are wide-ranging. They might cover interesting things we have read, from online articles to non-fiction books, from novels to blogs. Sometimes we discuss thought-provoking conversations we have had with others.

The topic of our health, mental or physical, occasionally comes up. How we make the decisions about how to stay as healthy as possible, from the food we consume to our exercise routines.

We also talk about politics. We don’t spend too much time on the latest happenings in Washington D.C., but rather what we consider the ways to make life better, both for us individually but also for society in general.

Sometimes, these conversations can be distilled down to particular questions for this blog. Some of them are obvious, and make for insightful questions. But not always. Sometimes, we can’t quite get the wording right. Or the content can’t be boiled down to one sentence. Or a question just isn’t apparent.

But what we have to say is always engaging. We never run out of things to talk about, and I always end our meeting having been exposed to ideas or perspectives that I hadn’t before.

And it all comes from a simple question: What are you thinking about?

Related questions: How much of our thoughts are our own? Where do shared ideas exist? What do you think about when out for a walk? What are you reading?

Is Poetry Still Relevant?

At one time, poetry as an artistic and literary form, was everywhere. It was printed in newspapers and magazines, it was memorized and repeated, it sold books in major quantities.

Is that true any more? When was the last time a recent poet or poem had a major cultural impact? The end of Game of Thrones was a cultural event. Kids lined up to buy the newest Harry Potter book. Movies, books, and TV still capture the public’s attention. But what about poetry?

In The Past

To be sure, poetry is still studied and learned in high schools and colleges across the U.S. (and the world). Students might still learn about Shakespeare’s sonnets, and write their own.

There are famous lines of poetry that have entered the cultural lexicon, from Blake’s “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright” written in 1794 to 1883’s The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, now engraved on the Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

But these are older poems, written by long-dead poets. What about poetry that is being written today? When was the last time you memorized a poem written in, say, the last 25 years? When have you overheard someone quoting a stanza from a modern verse?

In The Present

It’s true, that there are a number of people who are active, working poets. There is a Poet Laureate of the United States. A good bookstore will have a sizable poetry section, with new releases from poets like Billy Collins or Louise Gl├╝ck.

And everyday people regularly try their hand at poetry, from the humble haiku to the funny limerick, from highly structured verse to unstructured stream of conscience.

However, poetry today has definitely lost the stature that it used to hold in our society. While poetry has the ability to capture the mood of a particular moment in public consciousness, it would seem less likely to make a major impact in society at large.

In The Future

Maybe it simply takes more time for poetry to be accepted by a large segment of the population. Maybe we won’t really know what poetry that has been written in the last decade will be repeated and memorized by schoolchildren a hundred years from now.

It’s also possible that songs fill this need and play this role in our current society. Are modern songs merely poetry set to music? Do songs and rap, which definitely have a large cultural footprint, speak for our generation the way Wordsworth or Browning did in the past? Will portions of Lin Manuel Miranda’s play Hamilton be remembered and quoted the way Frost’s Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening, written nearly a hundred years ago, is to us today?

At any rate, poetry as it was known a hundred, two hundred, five hundred years ago is quite different from what it is today. Is it still relevant?

Related questions: What are the benefits of fiction? How does creative expression help us to know ourselves better? How does vocabulary influence how you think?

Is Our Attention Fractured?

How much is too much?

In many ways, we live in a golden age of media content. Thanks to education, more people know more about more topics than ever before. And thanks to the Internet, production and distribution are cheaper and easier than ever.

It would take you a lifetime to watch all the shows and movies on Netflix. Would you like to listen to a podcast on cryptozoology? You have your choice between dozens. You can get lost at your local library, in e-books or the old-fashioned print kind.

No generation in history has had access to so much. To put it another way, there have never been so many demands on our attention as there are now.

What does that mean for us?

There’s no reason to ever have an unproductive moment. Do you have a spare moment waiting in the grocery checkout line? You can scroll through social media. Riding the bus to work? Read an article from that niche magazine you like. Zoning out while on the treadmill at the gym? Listen to a workout mix from a streaming music service.

All this content means we can consume more. In theory, that means we are exposed to more, and more diverse, stories. But do we need time to actually be able to process this information? Rather than just going on to the next book, the next podcast, the next article, the next blog, is it necessary to take some time to internalize, to place the information in context? In addition, if we want to make content ourselves we need to alternate between consumption and production.

Moreover, in child development, isn’t it necessary that children learn to entertain themselves? How can that be done if they are constantly being entertained by other sources?

Occasionally, it is only through absence that we come to appreciate the world. Your favorite food tastes even better if you haven’t had it for a year. The warmth of summer feels all the better after the cold of winter. To that end, do we need to spend some time NOT reading or listening to stories, binging TV shows, or watching movies in order to appreciate them all the more?

Is some downtime required? How do we choose between the multitude of demands on us? Is our attention fractured?

Related questions: Are we too busy? How can we maintain wonder? How do you set priorities? What makes something memorable? What are you willing to sacrifice?