Notes on Radiant Action

I stumbled on the phrase “radiant action” last year while reading Charlotte’s Web to my daughter. I’d never read the book before and actually quite enjoyed it. If you don’t know it, it’s a story about a friendship between a spider and a pig. Ordinary and miraculous things happen. I recommend it.

The phrase, in question, comes up in the story when Charlotte, the spider, sends Templeton, the barnyard rat, out to find some words that she can write in her web about her friend Wilbur the pig.  By writing about him in her web (in retrospect, a sort of barnyard version of a blog) she hopes to convince the humans in the story that he’s “SOME PIG,” one that can even inspire spiders to be writers, and thus, ultimately save him from being slaughtered.

When Templeton returns with the words (one of the times he returns with some words), he brings Charlotte an advertisement for detergent—soap flakes—which reads, “And now with even more new radiant action!”(—or something along those lines. I’m with my family this summer in Michigan and don’t have the actual book with me. It’s at home in Cincinnati. Anyway, “radiant action” is in there—that’s what counts). “Radiant” is the third of four messages about Wilbur that Charlotte writes in her web (the others being the aforementioned “Some pig,” “Terrific” and “Humble”).

For some reason the phrase “radiant action” really struck me. It’s so warm, full of energy and light—nearly radioactive. It has a charge to it—the long “a” in “radiant” and the movement and deliberate decision (at least in the way I think about it) in “action.” There’s something about the phrase that seems a kind of metaphor for Being itself, an animating principle for art and for life. RADIANT ACTION!—a way to be, a way to proceed.

So I wrote it down and kept it with me, started thinking about the various human, non-fictional contexts—besides advertisements for detergent—where it might be applied.  What are the various ways the words together might mean?  From there the phrase lead me associatively to the sun, creation, belief, (artistic) faith (in process), inspiritedness, the uncontainable vast, miraculousness, and (weirdly) noise—in particular the difference between noise as mere interruption, disruption, and interference and meaningful noise, noise, which if one is open to it, becomes a new kind of music. “Some Pig!” And this in turn lead me back to the music I love, the radiant action of punk rock and its offshoots. I’ve spent a lot of time while writing these poems, listening to Hüsker Dü, especially Zen Arcade and also Bad Brains’ I Against I. Started reading and re-reading, too, James Schuyler’s brilliant “Hymn to Life,” David Rivard’s incredible debut Torque, Joanne Kyger’s As Ever: Selected Poems, James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break and Lew Welch’s Ring of Bone.  Somehow I also found my way back to No Wave bands like The Contortions and Mars, and to newer , so called, hardcore/post-hardcore bands like La Dispute, The Saddest Landscape, Pianos Become the Teeth, and Defeater. If all this sound sounds convoluted, well, it is, sort of. But ultimately, I think radiant action is a matter of radiant racket—making a noise (both literally and figuratively) that really matters in a depth-charged human way.

I don’t know why exactly that I associate “radiant action” with human “noise-making”—it’s something I’m trying to figure out. However, it occurs to me that like music, radiance is in the air, but it’s also mostly invisible. One feels or notices radiance, one hears/feels music. Radiance is a tricky quality of things.  One we associate with light and heat, “White Light, White Heat” the Velvet Underground mostly droned. Maybe my fascination with radiant action and radiance in action, then, has to do with my being a musician as well as a poet. Maybe it’s that language to me is first and foremost a noise, a sound in the air (or in the head), ordered or disordered in time. Poems, too, are sounds in the air—at least that’s what I want my poems to be, and where I feel like they resonate the most. Certainly, they aren’t merely black squiggles on a page. They disrupt and interfere with blankness, whiteness—silence (a kind of perfection). The written page is imperfect, and gorgeous in that imperfection, a field of meaning intended. As writer and musician David Toop puts it in his book Sinister Resonance, “… noise of all kinds…can act as a field of interference out of which essential signals can be isolated. Noise is not a sudden incidence of disruption, but the constancy through which events of high value—a silence for example, or breath heard against the slow flowing of water—are highlighted.” Now imagine substituting the word “poetry” for noise in the passage just quoted…

To give a poem life in the air—to read it out loud—extends its noisy imperfection radiantly. Reading is always an activity, but reading aloud either to an audience or oneself engages the whole body, brain, muscles, nerves, blood…

Radiance to radio…

Waves of sound to the sound of waves…

My tinnitus…

Convoluted and messy—even contradictory—it’s all in the poems. Radiant action is life in motion, is connectedness to, and immersion in, each other—in faith, belief, and love—paradise found in the noises we make—consonance, dissonance, harmony and sometimes also strife and hell. The beauty in this world is not uncomplicated, a tough and fragile meaning, a loud-soft sound in our heads and our hearts.


Matt Hart is the author of five books of poetry, most recently Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless (Typecast Publishing, 2012) and Debacle Debacle (H_NGM_N Books, 2013). A co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking & Light Industrial Safety, he lives in Cincinnati where he teaches at the Art Academy of Cincinnati and plays in the band TRAVEL.

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  1. Pingback: Table of Contents, Issue Three | Matter

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