Religion Magazine

Sound Bites and the Death of Poetry

By Richardl @richardlittleda

A confession to verbal GBH

Earlier this morning I was speaking on national radio on BBC Radio 4′s ‘Prayer for the Day’. With only 1 minute 50 seconds to play with, brevity is the order of the day. I chose on this occasion to hark back to a speech made fifty years ago today by Dr Martin Luther King, on the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery Alabama. I picked up on his famous description of the ‘arc of the moral universe’, and encouraged listeners to look up and see it in their times of trial, stretching high above them and bending towards the horizon. I have already heard from some who appear to have been inspired.

However, when I look back at the full text of Martin Luther King’s speech, I feel as if I have inflicted some kind of verbal abuse upon it by excising just one quote. In an era of rhetoric where the term ‘sound bite’ had not been invented, King’s speech rolls on like a mighty poetic river, cascading down over the capitol steps and out into the history books:

I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?”  Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of men, darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men?” Somebody’s asking, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?”I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment,  however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.” How long? Not long,  because “you shall reap what you sow.” How long? (How long?) Not long: Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne, Yet that scaffold sways the future, And, behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, Keeping watch above his own. How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

The longer I go on as a communicator, whether from the pulpit, from a radio studio, or in writing, the more I become convinced of the need for polyvalent poetic language. If we want language to evoke change, then it must capture the heart as well as challenging the mind.  Not only that, but we should leave the art of the sound bite to those who edit our work after hearing it. We should not, as some preachers do, stitch together a string of sound bites in a self-conscious bid for some kind of verbal immortality. If we would communicate poetically, then it will be because poetry invades our thoughts long before it invades our public language.

I hope Dr King will forgive me for plundering his speech for just one gem today. However, if that gem inspires one good act today – then I have a feeling he will.

Sound bites and the death of poetry

Image: wikimedia.commons


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