Doris Lessing’s early essay “The Small Personal Voice” is often considered the fullest elaboration of her realist aesthetics.
From its inception, much of the discussion around the terms realism and modernism stems from the fact that both are responses to a historically shifting conception of the “real,” naming different procedures for representing it, with implicit and explicit claims as to their adequacy for doing so. This means that modernism can become either another iteration of what was called realism, or a renovation of it.
During conversations about #MeToo, I find myself thinking often about time, perhaps most directly because the call of #MeToo was answered in 2018 by #TimesUp. This subsequent movement had its own share of problems, from questions about individual actors to pertinent criticism of Hollywood’s celebrity machine. But from where I stand at the very fringes of pop culture, it’s heartening to watch the cyclical, “That’s just how power works” morph into a full stop: “No more.” Not all the evidence offered up to public scrutiny has received full credence, unfortunately; but every conversation about power dynamics and gender violence shows that we are at a rare moment when discussions about how rhetoric constitutes truth-as-bias have spilled over from their usually restricted purview in humanities classrooms. Suddenly, newspaper Op-Eds are debating philosophical abstractions about the malleability of reality—believing her and believing him as if we’re all within a literary house of mirrors.
Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote “Sometimes a sentence can be understood only if it is read at the right tempo.” His were to be read slowly. We literary critics who are slow readers may find a compensatory gift, a certain quality of attention, well suited to closely reading poetry. For musicians, the analog, poor sight-reading, could be considered a boon: cautiously stumbling through an unfamiliar score yields a hard-won understanding of the contours of melodic and harmonic lines and details in phrasing and a physical sense of a piece’s range. Along the twin paths of ancient Greek’s lyric into modern poetry and music, meter remains a key common term, with all the dangers of a false cognate. However, another musical measure of time, tempo, is more useful for accounting for the varying paces at which text and music are experienced, and for the gifts that slow, belabored encounters offer scholars. The premise of this essay is that when set to music for the voice, the elasticity of a poem’s time scale surfaces, and that there are valuable critical insights to be gained there.[2