Poetry Sunday: “The Streaming,” by Elizabeth Spires

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor
“The Streaming” is a remarkable poem in both form and effect. Its 26 very long lines are organized into couplets, unrhymed but metered, scanning as either fourteeners in iambic hexameter with lots of inversions or else as trochaic hexameter, meaning I could locate seven stresses in most lines. Scansion is complicated by some lines arguably having only six stresses and also by how some lines fluctuate between a falling meter (trochaic or dactylic) and a rising meter (iambic or anapestic). To me, the falling-feeling predominates, and so I would call these lines trochaic hexameter.
I love the labels, but they are not strictly necessary to understanding how the poem works. Basically, the long lines and fluctuating but mostly-falling meter are, I think, in service of the poem’s message about how we are daily bombarded by electronic media and other requests, and how that bombardment impinges on our humanity. You might think that short lines would make things move faster, but the paradoxical truth is that long lines speed up a poem. This is because each line break requires a reader to pause while moving his or her eyes down to the beginning of the next line. In oral readings it occurs as a heard pause or a breath, but even in silent reading there is a break at the end of each line. Fewer breaks mean faster lines and more information getting to you in a shorter period of time, Ethernet versus wireless connection. And that, of course, is essential to the feeling this poem is trying to create—a great glut of information constantly rushing at us. Try reading this poem aloud and you will likely find yourself running out of breath before you get to the end of many of the lines. It was designed to do that, readers, in order to generate the feelings of overwhelm and anxiety central to this poem.
It opens with an assault on the eyes, “MASSACRE” shrieking in capital letters as it so often does now in the headlines. (That word by itself, by the way, sets the stage for a falling meter, for it scans as a dactyl, / ~~, or MASS A CRE.) The headline, in effect, attacks the speaker on her way into a coffee shop where she perhaps hopes to sit and relax for a few moments, and the second line of the couplet reminds us of what we already know: such affronts are part of the Internet phenomenon known as “streaming,” meaning they are live, constant, and something that at the very least passes across our daily consciousness and maybe does worse. The pun in the word “streaming” calls to mind running water, a headlong rush.
The second couplet makes clear there is no refuge or succor: streaming finds us wherever we are, “at home” or “in the grocery store” as well as in public places like Times Square. And what is the content of that “streaming”? According to the poem, all the things we’d rather not be looking at, at least not 24/7: death, violence, and the gritty details of daily, ubiquitous human tragedy. The view is sometimes wide-angle (“the fires, the bombings”), sometimes “closer, moving in,” but always relentless. In one example, homeless people hold out hands as some passersby respond and others turn away. The turning away gives rise to another theme of the poem: the way witnessing these tragedies compels a response, and how repeated exposure to painful stimuli can hinder our ability to respond. We are all aware of the problem of habituation and the way that the mind eventually shuts down in response to repeated contact with something causing pain or discomfort. As Susan Sontag famously points out in her book-length essay Regarding the Pain of Others (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2003), shock has “term limits” and just as “one can become habituated to horror in real life, one can become habituated to the horror of certain images.”
The poem acknowledges and builds on this idea in “hardening as more and more, / hold out their hands;” when we turn away, it only exacerbates the underlying problem by increasing the number of people in need. This reminds the speaker of other ways we, at least we here in a privileged First World country, are barraged by intercessory requests. Not just by the Internet, but also through the “mail” and by phone or in person, a “voice [is always] asking you to give.” That in turn reminds her of the general intrusiveness of phones in our lives today: “everywhere the ringing,” even into our most sacred, intimate moments at weddings and funerals.
From the pervasiveness of solicitations and of ringing phones, the poem moves on to another thing bombarding us now: talking. Because of the omnipresence of cell phones, we are often privy to conversations we do not want to hear. By eavesdropping on these conversations, even if inadvertently, we are drawn into whatever drama the talkers are experiencing in any given moment; the author underscores this by repeating verbatim several snatches of overheard dialogue (lines 16-18). By this point, if not before, it all feels like too much—just as in life it often feels like too much.
That is when the poem turns, just a little over midway through in line 19, to commentary on the scene: “The needing-cessation but nothing ever ceasing.” The speaker has had enough, and having been drawn into her experience, we just about have, too. So, it comes as a relief to hear the speaker’s voice commenting on the situation. We need all this to stop, but it never does. We’ve opened the Pandora’s Box of technology that can never be closed. In the poem the speaker wants to scream but does not, and that thwarted urge ratchets up the tension and anxiety already generated in previous lines.
We are grateful, then, to reach that “space of silence / in a church” in the third-to-last stanza, a place of refuge where people pray for a surcease of pain, a sense of solace and refuge. It is, of course, quickly “Shattered. Shattered by a ringing phone.” I think those words communicate more than someone’s phone accidentally going off. They describe also what happens to us inside when we receive terrible news by phone, and even when the news is not terrible, the small sonic assault that happens every time a phone rings. Since childhood, the sound of a ringing phone has felt like someone yelling at me, and I dislike it more since having received various bits of bad news that way, the kind of psychological scarring that makes us hate, or at least fear, the messenger. This only amplifies the already assaultive effect of technology which, in its turn, hardens us further to human suffering brought to us by that technology.
The speaker’s moment of refuge is “shattered” by that ringing phone, but she “still” takes the time to pray. Finally, in an example of the objective correlative (a term coined by T. S. Eliot) that uses landscape or scene to express the inner state of a character, she encounters a young girl whose stance—and bookbag—become a vehicle for getting across what the speaker is feeling. Like the speaker, the girl feels besieged and so clutches her bookbag to her chest “[a]s if it were a shield.” In this instance, the girl functions not as a character in the poem’s narrative so much as a prop, a part of the landscape pressed into service as an objective correlative. But I find it fascinating that, even in this role, she embodies the only human connection the speaker makes in the poem. The speaker identifies with the girl, or at the very least assumes the girl shares her feelings of overwhelm. It is in the words of a logo or sticker on the girl’s bookbag that we discover the poem’s core concern, the injunction to “stay human.” In a unique example of ring construction, those capital letters take us back to the word “MASSACRE” at the poem’s beginning, but they have the literal last word. The poem’s intent, it seems to me, is not to complain about or wish relief from all the bad-news bombardment, but a deeper concern about how that bombardment “hardens” us and so lessens our humanity.

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