The Poetics and Politics of Time

From Peter Cole’s new collection of poems, The Invention of Influence, comes this little wonder, “Of Time and Intensity”:

Is Time a dispersion of intensity?
For epiphanists, maybe, but not for me—
for whom Time is a transposition
of immensity into a lower key.

The republican tradition of Machiavelli—not to mention political and cultural theories of decadence—is always worried about this problem of temporal distance from a moment of origin. Conservatism is too. Sometimes. In ten words, Cole explains why these concerns may be unfounded.

Peter’s not a political poet, but I always find unanticipated resources for my own thinking in his poems. I really recommend that you buy this latest collection of his.


  1. Unlearner January 18, 2014 at 4:59 pm | #

    Blakean rhyme.

  2. Joanna Bujes January 18, 2014 at 5:31 pm | #

    I liked Heraclitus’ definition: “Time is a child at play.”

  3. Jesse F January 18, 2014 at 10:02 pm | #

    I really want to believe that time isn’t a dispersion of intensity…against all my experience…but unfortunately I don’t understand the last line of the poem. Can someone interpret it for me? “Immensity into a lower key”? What did this make you think of?

    • Jara Handala January 19, 2014 at 12:15 pm | #

      I don’t know what it evokes in others, but it could mean that after a memorable event, maybe long after, both its significance & affective powers remain, albeit transformed into something durable, profound, less exciting but more sustainable, understood & experienced in a much more thoroughgoing way – intensity into immensity, but lower.

      Just my immediate take on what you ask.

  4. Agog January 19, 2014 at 7:09 am | #


    Music – transposed into a lower key it’s not diminished (as I guess ‘dispersion’ implies) – it’s just heard differently.

    • Jesse F January 19, 2014 at 12:44 pm | #

      Thanks jane and agog! (and Corey and Peter of course)

      So the high-pitch shriek (shaking those close to it) flattens out into a deep bellow (which reaches further and deeper). Very niice.

  5. Agog January 19, 2014 at 7:43 am | #

    Thanks Corey btw – it’s always good to hear about interesting modern poets.

  6. Jara Handala January 19, 2014 at 1:22 pm | #

    Corey refer to origins, & they are fundamental to many human endeavours, be they individual, interpersonal, groupal, inter-groupal, or social. Concerning origins, given the previous two posts by Corey, one need think no further than the English-language title of a book by Zeev Sternhell, The Founding Myths of Israel. (The original French title is quite different, Aux origines d’Israel – with a diaeresis on the final vowel.)

    A point I want to make is that there is no singular time in human affairs. Sometimes it is useful to gauge the passage of time by using a metric external to what is happening, usually a linear numerical scale, which uses a spatial difference to denote a temporal one. (It’s another example of how visual our species is, how visually based are some of the procedures we devise.)

    It is important to recognise that the temporal complexity of how our species lives is that each process we are engaged in has its own temporality, an inner-temporality, a temporality that is not reducible to an externally measured duration. By this I’m noting, fundamentally, the social nature of human temporality, & that there are two dimensions to the temporal aspect of human living, the generative & the generated. Putting it this way, transposing to a lower key as it were, contrasts with a ‘flat’ ontology that only recognises the temporally generated, often in the conceptually impoverised reduction of time to duration, its quantified ‘passing’.

    A complexity is that an ideology can be created that projects ‘time past’ into the future, temporality becoming a thread, a social prop, helping to sustain & justify present political, economic & cultural efforts. Obviously we see this in the way the fascist European judeocide is conceptualised as ‘The Holocaust’, & garnered by Jewish Israeli supremacists & their foreign supporters to induce, amongst other things, guilt & silence in hesitant critics. To use the idea in Peter Cole’s verse, these people do their best to maintain the intensity of the suffering – but in both a vicious & a virtuous way.

    In exploring the complexity of human temporality we can draw upon & develop the ideas of those such as Georges Gurvitch, Ernst Bloch & Reinhart Koselleck.

  7. Jonny Butter January 19, 2014 at 6:28 pm | #

    Very interesting poem and comment. I must say, however, that I frequently lose the thread when writers use transposition (the musical term) as a metaphor. Maybe I’m dense, but transposition – i.e. repeating a series of intervals but starting them at a different position than before – isn’t really so transformative as often seems to be implied when an author invokes a change of key. I don’t know what a ‘lower key’ is supposed to mean here. Less intense?

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