Some Notes on Poetic Attention
The first job, and primary responsibility of the poet, is to pay attention. My high school poetry teacher, Michael Delp, used to remind me of this whenever I passed him in the low-lit concourse between classes: “Hey Spaulding, pay attention!”
This was his most important instruction and I still hear his voice booming in my head more than two decades later.
Here’s a basic dictionary definition of Attention (noun):
1 notice taken of someone or something; the regarding of someone or something as interesting or important:
- the mental faculty of considering or taking notice of someone or something
To attend: verb: to be present
ORIGIN Middle English (in the sense of ‘apply one’s mind, one’s energies to’): from Old French atendre, from Latin attendere, from ad- ‘to’ + tendere ‘stretch.’
Over the years, so many poems have schooled me in the art taking notice and being present. They are among the best teachers—whether reading or writing them—and for this reason, I begin each day with at last one poem from the stack of books beside my bed.
This morning I began with this one:
by Linda Gregg
I would like to decorate this silence,
but my house grows only cleaner
and more plain. The glass chimes I hung
over the register ring a little
when the heat goes on.
I waited too long to drink my tea.
It was not hot. It was only warm.
from Chosen by the Lion, 1999.
It’s a damp, overcast November morning. Not winter yet. On my way to the kitchen to make toast from the lopsided loaf I baked last night, I stopped to open the patio door to check the outside air. To breathe it in. Chilly, but not unpleasant. Red berries glisten wetly on a half-dead tree next to the breezeway. Autumn olive? I learned many of the names of trees while growing up, but that was in Michigan, and further north than here. Strangely, there’s a robin singing, a sound I associate with early spring. A confusion of seasons and senses. Another sign of our changing climate? I don’t know. I will have to pay attention if I really want to understand where I am, what it means, and what, among all of the things of my world, makes a poem.
So what do I mean by “poetic attention”? It’s not like paying attention to the road when you’re driving. Or paying attention in class so that you don’t miss what will be on the test.
It’s not motivated by a particular outcome, although I do think it has a purpose: to be open. To be permeable.
I think there are at least two forms of poetic attention: Inward and Outward. In the former case, the focus is directed toward the interior experience and sensations. When something moves us and we’re aware enough to notice how that feels, this is an instance of inward attention.
Outward attention is when the gaze and senses and other faculties are directed at one’s surroundings or environment—away from the self and into the world. By paying attention in these ways to what’s happening, we start to understand more fully. Sometimes we arrive at a new insight or impression. A poem can cause these things to happen in a reader, too, effectively enacting the gesture, and including the reader in the experience of coming to attention, whether they’re practiced in this mode or not.
To complicate this a little bit, I want to talk about noticing versus judging. A simple way to say this is that I think that it’s important to look and listen and attend without, at first, analyzing and judging. I’m interested in a way of being awake to the world and my experience of it that’s inclusive and capacious rather than dominating or acquisitive; not motivated by the impulse to possess or control or even to comment (at least at first). Such a mode of being is also a form of resistance in the sense that it moves one away from consumption or commodification, and toward a more sensitive engagement with what is, which includes the present moment.
Just seeing. Just attending. Open and aware.
Does this make you want to write about what you notice? When I talked about these things during a lecture at the 2015 Interlochen Writers Retreat, I offered the following writing prompt. The group was comprised of poets, novelists, memoirists, and others, but most seemed to be able to get somewhere with the instructions. Afterward, a novelists told me he’d written his first poem—and he liked it!
- Call to mind a recent-ish encounter in nature.
- Lock eyes with at least one concrete image related to that experience.
- Write 3-7 lines that incorporate what you saw, plus something you perceived via one of your other senses.
- Marry elements of nature or the natural world with a human presence.
- Include a question but not an answer.
Just try it. I call it practicing.
If you find that using creative writing prompts helps to kickstart your daily writing, I’m offering a 21 Day Poetry Challenge during the month of December. Enrollment is open. We begin December 1. More information over here.
Thanks for reading.