Over there! Cries the thief, pointing away from himself and the victim as he picks a pocket. While the attention is focused on one thing at a distance, some switch is made about the victim’s person. Only later, in a moment of condensing awareness does the victim feel the change. Something about them is reduced, is less, is gone.
Our attention is mostly this. How submissive! How fickle! Look at my watch; pick a card, any card; Immigration, Immigration, Immigration…You are feeling very sleepy…
Are you looking to forget? Or are you looking to remember? Looking to forget is technological looking, the blind sight of the gadget, the machine, the photograph. Aren’t tablets, smartphones not all photo,—even the words—a seamless succession of photos without text? Nobody’s hieroglyphs.
(Electronic texts as photographs of texts, simulacra of language and thought; mirror image of a mirror image; texts, as the psychologists tell us, only ever half read, hardly memorised because un-memorisable—memory being something of the flesh, the pulse, related to touch; personal, not distant).
You are not a gadget? (Jaron Lanier). Too bloody late, pal; too bloody late.
Illustration: A-level students of mine were set cover work in the absence of another teacher. On her desk was an instruction sheet which told them to ‘annotate the poem in detail’ and next to it, copies of that poem for them to take away. All twelve members of the group walked into the room, photographed the instruction sheet with their phones and walked away without the poem, or even a photo of the poem, as if their phones were eye and memory, as if the act of taking the electronic photo, the photo itself, (its ‘bits’ of ‘memory’) was the completed work.
What we call attention is mostly this: skimmed, stuck, staccato, then skipped and slippery. Every tenth word, every tenth sentence stays, if we’re lucky. A lack of suchness, dasein, presence, referent is our mode of being, but it haunts us, what we aren’t seeing. We feel it in our days, through our days and nights, as agitation, boredom, restlessness. We press one button, then another, then another. No thought feels finished: no thought feels thought. Death always one screen behind the screen we’re facing. We pass over it while it grins back at us.
Unless, that is, it’s poetic attention we mean: a kind of un-stated un-iterated ‘Lo!’—an urgent, anti-autocratic imperative, instructing us to look, really look, in order, as Dr. Johnson would have it, to understand.
Or maybe, and better, we should resurrect the more Shakespearean ‘La,’ which Johnson calls effeminate, perhaps because in Shakespeare the characters who say it don’t say it grandly, biblically (‘Lo he comes with clouds descending,’ etc.), but informally, with a kind of sigh.
They are usually women asking for (male) attention: Maria, Valeria, Marina, Mistress Quickly, Cleopatra, Ophelia; or men Johnson might consider feminized, perhaps because of their low social status (Macmorris and Fluellen), or perhaps because they talk of vice or love –Pandarus, Biron, Slender.
La! then. Unaggrandized attention. But without the need for anyone’s approval.
Poetry places us on the threshold of understanding. It takes us to a place of knowing and leaves us at the door, having no words either for what we find there.
‘Prose is what is said. Rhetoric is what is re-said. Poetry is what is unsaid.’ (Philip Levine paraphrasing/translating Juan Ramon Jimenez).
Poetic attention: everything spelled (Hopkins) ‘held in ice as dancers in a spell’ (Wilbur) or held ‘burning’ (Eliot, ‘The Fire Sermon’), but held. Uncertainties, mysteries and doubts all at once—no irritable reaching after fact and reason because fact and reason (is reason doubt? are they co-equivalent?) are within reach, are held inside the poem, that cathedral of contraries.
Where does it come from, this poetic attention? When I speak of it I want prepositions like under: It seems to come from under (though ‘under’ is, of course, a metaphor here). ‘Does the land lean down to lift the sea from under?’ (Bishop). Yes! a reaching down and under within oneself. And yet, many times, there is no attempt to attend. Whatever rises rises from under by itself, in its wise passiveness, then beyond us. It comes towards us, then deserts us. It is hardly with us at all.
Yet when it happens, the object of our gaze or our listening is washed inside us. Hopkins describes it: kingfisher, stone, bell, and bow all ‘selving’ (even the inert things somehow becoming themselves) inside his capacious thinking.
Just now, the bare birch tree outside my window swayed a little as the wind died and I could feel a tiny rocking in my torso, my torso responding to the wind, echoing the tree.
Image, yes, but after-image also. Think of ‘after-image of lamps swung in the yard’; that which ‘sets the darkness echoing’ (Heaney): the moment and the resonance of the moment is also poetic attention. The fluidity of moment, its momentum, is what we come to know in poetry and in our lives through poetry. Wordsworth’s narrator in ‘The Solitary Reaper’ listens to the ‘highland lass’ for only a minute or two and does not understand the content of the words she sings in Gaelic.
But he understands their meaning. The moment and momentum of song provides a link with the far past, the past of her people, and, by extension, his own unknown past. It’s a moment of intense but generalised feeling and folk memory. It is ghostly, too, because the other ancestral singers of this song are dead, and the highland lass continues to echo them. She becomes their ghostliness, which is their namelessness, and joins in that namelessness too, the fate of the people (but not the fate of the kings and princes and bosses who keep their names even when they lose themselves). ‘A stone stands by a grave and says nothing—’ (Oswald) yet in its wordlessness, says everything.
If ‘The Solitary Reaper’ wants to explore the fluidity of attention, the continued music of it, then the ‘blind beggar’ episode in Wordsworth’s ‘1805 Prelude’ discovers for us the limits of attention and words.
Amid the moving pageant, ‘twas my chance
Abruptly to be smitten with the view
Of a blind beggar, who with upright face,
Stood propped against a wall, upon his chest
Wearing a written paper to explain
The story of the man and who he was.
My mind did at this spectacle turn round
As with the might of waters, and it seemed
To me that in this label was a type
Or emblem of the utmost that we know
Both of ourselves and of the universe;
Wordsworth doesn’t tell us the story of the man that he reads on the paper, and, as a result, the blind man seems more than blind: he seems to be speechless also. Not without speech, but simply placed inside a kind of anguished silence. Beyond the words on the label, the name and the story, is silence. Sublimity, if you like. And Wordsworth’s attention? He watches it turn like a rip tide, plunging himself, and us, into the ‘unsaid.’
But the loss of the image. In Wordsworth, in Coleridge, in so many poets, not just brightness and luminosity, but the failure of vision, glare and whiteout: ‘if I could revive within me her symphony and song,’ says Coleridge.
The whole of Kubla Khan laments the loss of the ‘sacred river’ in the ‘lifeless ocean.’ And the river is ‘Alph,’ ‘Alpha’: beginnings, origin, childhood. The vision begins in the loss of first things, and, as in Coleridge’s poem, the force of that lost river pushes upwards in us, with love, with violence sometimes; occasionally, explosive violence.
As it does with Rosemary Tonks: all those exclamations of hers! Aren’t they vision? Or should I say ‘visions’? Her attention is so intense the poems she makes each seem a series of micro-visions, disconnected, machine-gunned, gulped, yelped, grinned. One moment of deranged furious perception quickly succeeds to the next. And between each, a silence, a loss. ‘He wants to help me with my arias!’ ‘La!’ The poems cry out ‘satori’ after ‘satori’. Did she see the world so hard and far it cost her her vision? Her life was spent staring at the flame of herself.
Sylvia Plath’s attention has some of the same quality, but with added Father, added Abyss. Her attention is Ariel galloping straight for the red of the morning. She grips the moment tight, for attention is costly, difficult, precious, brief. Oh where does she find her images? When she places them in the poem they are charred, still smoking, as if rescued from fire. Her moon hangs in the sky. A hell-fruit. And by its light she examines the dark water of origins, travelling further than anyone into it. Plunging in, returning.
Yet this ferocity is not the only form of poetic attention. There a million different ways. Ruth Stone felt that the poems came towards her, looking for their poet: the words wrote themselves outside her, on the air. Ariel moved toward her and away. Unlike Plath she seems to have learned a patience to wait for the words’ return. ‘By noon, I can’t stop writing/I’m on the back of last night,/ a reverse gallop.’ The reverse gallop, back to Alph:
Goliath is struck by the stone.
The stone turns into a bird.
The bird sings in her window.
Time is absurd. It flows backward.
It is married to the word.
‘All Time Is Past Time’
Yes: ‘the bird sings in her window.’ Attention is also audial, not merely visual (Johnson tells us this), and it is perhaps the song element that preserves us. In a poem, the true image is also a sung image— ‘La!’— (do it! make the sound now, start to sing!) La: the movement in the mouth of the tongue tapping, waking the palate, a moment when our speech turns bird-like. And why do birds sing? To mark the moments (sunrise, sunset, the strut of their own loveliness) to cover distances, to say here-I-am or ‘what I do is me, for that I came.’
‘It’s you, blackbird, I love,’ Heaney tells us in a great late moment of joy and redemption, knowing a blackbird was there after the accident that killed his brother, just as another is here as he contemplates himself as ‘a shadow on raked gravel/ in front of my house of life.’
Not just the blackbird’s song is welcomed, though, in that poem, but also its moments of alarm. Here is a deep, thoroughgoing identification with the bird that leads out from him the phrase: ‘Hedge-hop, I am absolute for you.’ But what’s more important here? Heaney being absolute for the blackbird? Or Heaney being ‘for’ the blackbird, its nature? Like all good lines, it’s impossible to paraphrase without sounding clumsy against the line’s grain and grace.
And what is Heaney ‘for’ in the blackbird? The continuous and unremarked presence of blackbird in its hidden places, its epiphanic darting out into the open, maybe? (so many different birds over the years, yet a continuum of blackbird is suggested, just like the continuum of song in ‘The Solitary Reaper’; birdlife as chorus admitted, welcomed into the weave of human history).
But that’s only part of the line’s meaning, the way in which it pays attention to so many things at once: not only the bird, but Heaney’s life story. Not only the life story but the implied, generous world-view that goes beyond the data of his life-events. And so on. And death is there too, in all of this, joy in the face of death.
So, where do we go from here? Well, in my attention-space, just now, C.K. Williams voiced it for me. ‘Beasts, angels, taking up room, the ways of duty and love: where next, dream, what now?’
Real attention is radical uncertainty, yet if we are inside that poetic attention a freedom arises. The muse (i.e. the voice inside us experienced as Other) collaborates with us. We ask ‘where next, dream, what now?’ and the poem (whose poem?) answers us with its embodied silence, answers with a stepping stone.
Prose Poets is a new series of short prose essays on poetics by poets. Each essay uses a word and definition excerpt from Samuel Johnson’s first edition of the English Dictionary as a spur towards an exploration of poetry, language and literary criticism, combining a casual, subjective treatment of the chosen theme with personal anecdotes and reflections.