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Poetic Attention I

In Tom Stoppard’s play Indian Ink, the heroine Flora Crewe arrives in the Indian city of Jummapur in the 1930s to give a lecture on literary life in London. Flora Crewe is a poet, and when she arrives at the British club, one of the older members extols the virtues of Kipling, and quotes a few lines of ‘Gunga Din’. His wife corrects him: Flora Crewe is a modern poet, not the sort you remember.

Of course, the joke is a play on “to remember” and “to memorize”—but the substance of the joke is familiar. I was once told by a rather drunk gentleman that I couldn’t possibly like a particular poet unless I was able to recite at least one of his poems. Of course, no Charles Dickens fan is held to this standard, though I suspect there are many people who can quote long swaths of Great Expectations.

I would like to posit that the ultimate substance of the joke has to do with different kinds of attention. One kind of poetic attention is focused on memorization—on learning the lines the way I learned pop songs in Middle School (well, hopefully, you’ll do better than I did, although I did marry someone who thinks it’s cute when I sing the wrong lyrics).  Another kind of poetic attention has to with looking at the piece of paper held in front of you, and experiencing the sounds as you read them.  In a certain way, the difference between Flora Crewe and Rudyard Kipling (or Mark Doty and Rudyard Kipling, if you prefer, since Flora Crew is fictional) is in the kind of attention they demand.

Unfortunately, we often map unrelated kinds of attention onto other kinds of attention. For example, I tend to associate Kipling with a sort of sentimental and inspirational wisdom. ‘Gunga Din’ makes me roll my eyes, because I’m not terribly interested in a “noble savage” or the sort of dialect that the author condescends to portray. I map this sort of sentiment onto the sort of rhythm and meter that makes poems easy to remember. Of course I’m being unfair in two ways. The first is that one can say something entirely shocking in rhyme and meter. The second is that Kipling is easy to deride as “easy” and “sentimental” from my cozy Brooklyn bunker. If you attend the Muhammad Ali Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, you’d discover that Kipling’s poem ‘If’ inspired many of Ali’s most difficult decisions—entirely un-ironically.

As Kathryn pointed out in her manifesto, we tend to associate free verse and mainstream modernist and post-modernist poetics with egalitarian and progressive poetics. Interestingly, at least in the US, the 1950s and McCarthyism erased most American’s memory of the popularity of radical and Communist poetics that were dominant in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. Unlike the Diego Rivera and David Margolis murals that remain to remind us of radical politics in visual art, anthologies rarely record their versifying counterparts. (Alan Filreis’s excellent book Counterrevolution of the Word made me aware of this erasure).

Poetry demands a different kind of attention than a movie, a novel, sex, bookbinding, or cooking dinner. My own feeling is that poetry’s decline in popularity (in comparison to say, James Bond films) stems from the intensity of attention demanded by poetry, as well as the way that poetic attention is in no way escapist. Poetry asks to be heard in your own voice, at your own speed, to be considered against your own life.

I don’t know if it’s worthwhile, but here are few kinds of attention that contemporary poetry demands. I’ve tried to list attentions that incur polar reactions:

1)     Feeling lost in the presence of a great intelligence.

2)     Feeling lost in the presence of a kooky voice.

3)     Receiving familiar wisdom in a new package.

4)     Hearing a voice much like your own reflect your own experience back to you.

5)     Hearing a voice that alarms you.

6)     Listening to an oracular proclamation.

7)     Listening to an inside joke.

8)     Recognizing a kind of speaker that you recognize as a parody.

I’m trying to elucidate these modes—and maybe “attention” isn’t even the right word—but if I have an axe to grind, it’s that we have to find the poetry we love and then elucidate that love. Our visions and tastes can grow, but not if we’re stuck thinking that we’re the only ones doing poetry right, while that other camp is doing it wrong.

Poetic attention varies from poem to poem and from reader to reader. In the next post, I’ll expand back to the social—but for now I’m glad to stay in the intimacy of writer to reader. After all, we all want to write the sort of poem that people remember—and that happens one reader at a time.


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