Poetry as Attention
‘I felt such tenderness toward
Paragraph One follows: 1:
For the past few semesters of teaching creative writing, I’ve led my students in a walking meditation around Krauss Hall Pond on the UHM [the University of Hawai‘i-Mānoa] campus. No devices allowed. We go around the small pond twice, very slowly. Then I ask them to write about the experience, first using details they noticed, then thinking through their emotional experiences of the walk. Ducks and embarrassment. Ducks and impatience. Ducks. Ducks. Ducks.
I do this not to show them how to write poems or essays, although the course is about that. I have them walk so that they can attend to what is in front, in back, to what is all around them. Several semesters later, I notice a student at the Pond nearly every day as I walk to the parking structure. She tells me she had no idea it was here until we walked. I wonder how many poems she remembers of what we read. I don’t much care.
Ben Lerner writes, in The Hatred of Poetry (let me complain that the ‘the’ is a problem for me): ‘If you are an adult foolish enough to tell another adult that you are (still!) a poet, they will often describe for you their falling away from poetry’ (11). But there we are, shuffling around the pond, not even (yet) thinking about poems. We’re not embarrassed that we’re poets; we’re embarrassed that we’re walking so slowly and in single file and that people eating lunch outside the Cognitive Therapy Center (are they embarrassed too?) might laugh at us. But then we let that go.
Lerner doesn’t get to this point until the very end of his short book, when he realizes that he is seeing the world as it is, not as the Poem that lives in his imagination wants him to see it: ‘I’ve been attending outdoor theater when I can, less interested in the particular play than in watching, say, a police helicopter over Central Park drift into the airspace over the Forest of Arden’ (85). Here he uses the word ‘attending’ well, to mean he is at Midsummer Night’s Dream, and he is attending to the drama that surrounds it. He breaks his own ordinary spell by hoping the perp got away — what if he’s guilty? — but he does notice the helicopter.
As Ken Chen writes about the avant-garde in his thorough review of Lerner’s book: ‘These may be assaults against art, but they’re also embraces of life.’ Chen deals well with Lerner’s ‘identity issues,’ his praise for Baraka that’s mixed oddly with his insistence that the Poet bring us all together. Lerner’s canon is — until he gets to Claudia Rankine, and how familiar is that move? — very white and very male. White dudes transcend, brown ones not so much.
It’s a rare moment in his book when he’s not worried about poems. He worries over them because he thinks they fail. They fail because they cannot leave this world for one outside of time (rather than inside of it, as at the outdoor theater). ‘You’re moved to write a poem, you feel called upon to sing, because of that transcendent impulse. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms’ (8). Never once does he utter the name, Laura (Riding) Jackson, she who made her profession of accusing poetry of being a profession, in long prose screeds. She gave up poetry because it couldn’t ascend.
The failure to ascend can kill a bird, and (as Wallace Stevens wrote), poetry can kill a man. But what kills poems, it has long seemed to me, is the way the traditional lyric poem — what once was fresh! — became a template that self-replicates, then dictates. My student’s early poems may gather details into a story, but by the time they end, they’ve folded into lyric timelessness. ‘I told you so,’ they seem to say. Life is complicated, but the moral is there at the end to paste in.
I attended a reading once by W.S. Merwin in Buffalo. This was not the Buffalo of Creeley and Bernstein, but the Buffalo of a wealthy woman who ran a reading series of famous mainstream poets. I’ve heard him do better in Honolulu, but my main impression of that reading was that, given the first ten lines of each of his poems, I could call out the endings. Each one was neat and tidy and gave the reader an out. She could take that ending out of the auditorium with her, hold onto it, and never again think about the complexities of the poem. If that’s what we term transcendence (and it is at least one of the definitions of that term for poems), then I want nothing of it! If what’s at stake is greatness or failure, well then that leaves out life.
When asked to define ‘poetry,’ my students often go in two ways. First, it’s a piece of writing in form; second, it’s about emotions. Objectivism has yet to reach our high schools, even if elementary school students are often good at taking notes on what they see before everything turns to formula (the fallen version of form). In neither case do they require what Lerner wants from ‘Poetry’: ‘a word for an outside that poems cannot bring about, but can make felt, albeit as an absence, albeit through embarrassment.’ Rather, my students want to make their feelings better known to themselves and to others — to push emotions outward. It’s the lyric as therapy, a definition Lerner never gets to. I push them away from the poem as therapy, even as I note how powerful is each student’s desire to communicate.
Even though I distrust the lyric in so many ways, both because I’m someone of my time and because I hate predictable endings and the promise of there being an out-of-time for us to travel to like imagined Alps, I love the way the lyric focuses attention. Because it tends not to do the police in many voices but in one, and because it is less concerned with history than with being (or the being of a daffodil), the lyric offers us discipline. To see the world as a series of lyrics is to see the world. And that brings me back to attention.
The other day as I drove home, my daughter and her sister were chatting and singing in the back seat, as they often do. Then the loop started. They would say something and I would hear it twice, three times, four times. I was driving forward, but time seemed to have gotten caught in a trap. ‘What’s going on back there?’ I yelled over the radio and the open windows; ‘just Snapchat,’ they said.
This was simply the quick version of what I’ve long noticed, that my daughter and her friends have an experience that instantly loops on social media; what they attend to is what has just happened, even as we drive through landscape so stunning it can take your breath away. Time has never really been linear: to read a book is to take time out, after all. But time as echo chamber, where something happens and then just keeps happening in the same way, is new.
It’s as if the real drama in Groundhog Day weren’t the getting out of the pattern, but the pattern itself. The pattern is highlighted by a Facebook meme I saw this morning. In it, a man looks across his table in a diner not at a friend, but at a wall. The caption had to do with how it feels to eat with someone who can’t get off their phone.
But to repeat time is not necessarily to attend to it. Attending in poetry to what happens is the subject of Andrew Epstein’s expansive new book, Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture, published by Oxford University Press. Epstein’s argument is that post-World War II American poetry is increasingly imbricated in daily life and that poets create ‘reverse hierarchies,’ abandoning the lyric’s traditional move toward transcendence. The arc he traces begins with James Schuyler, who writes about daily moments without creating hierarchies of value (e.g., epiphanies) and ends with the (very) odd couple of Claudia Rankine and Kenneth Goldsmith.
By way of chapters on A.R. Ammons, Ron Silliman, and Bernadette Mayer, as well as one on Mayer’s followers, including Hoa Nguyen, Epstein charts a narrative that moves from moments of perception to quite literal garbage, lots of it. He moves from poets who take the conflict between meaning and ordinary life as their subject to those who simply inventory the ordinary. He lays his scaffolding down with the help of everyday life theorists, including philosophers (Benjamin, Debord, de Certeau) and cultural theorists (Highmore, Gardiner, Sheringham).
Epstein makes several important claims along the way. One is that the avant-garde is not ‘diametrically opposed to ’realism,’ but that ‘avant-garde realism’ ‘refuse[s] to accept the strict binary that would pit realism’s concern for immediate and ordinary experience against the avant-garde’s formal experimentation and skepticism about language and representation’ (9).
Another claim he makes is that experiments with everyday content are inevitably experiments with form: ‘there is a deep yet understudied connection between the pursuit of everyday life and an eagerness to experiment with form’ (18). Finally, Epstein equates these experiments — many of them ‘projects” — with an increasing interest on the part of poets like Silliman and Rankine in a material politics. As Rankine shows us, everyday moments can be intensely political, especially as they involve our assumptions. To see clearly, then, is to locate a better politics.
Attention Equals Life is strong in the way that thesis-driven books are strong, and sometimes weak, as they are. But, especially in the first three-quarters of his book, Epstein offers very sensitive readings of poems; he opens us up to their everydayness, rather than tethering them to any particular notion of their significance.
Part of the joy of reading this book for me was in re-encountering poems by O’Hara, Ammons, Mayer, and seeing them set in a new theoretical context. What is new, in literary terms, is Epstein’s claim that there’s little difference between Ammons, for example, and avant-garde writers he’s never included among. I was reminded of Marjorie Perloff’s essay in which she wondered what the real difference was between Ammons’s work and that of Denise Levertov. Communities of poets are too often defined by social groups, rather than according to poetic affinities.
So reading the book is like taking a walk (walking being a form of attention) through familiar poems with an excellent tour guide. Once the walk is finished, you know why Epstein spent so much time pointing out Schuyler’s ‘trash book.’ And you know why he spends so much time with his long poems, rather than sticking with the shorter ones. You know why Epstein turns away from Ammons’s early poems and lingers on his ‘Garbage.’ You understand why Mayer’s decision to write all the time matters (for mothers, especially) and why Goldsmith seems to spring from the forehead of Ron Silliman.
There’s a map of influences here that provides counter-point to the material each poet uses. If, as one of my colleagues said in a meeting, ‘I hate flat poetry,’ you will not like these poems, especially as you walk into the present tense (the tense present). If you want to learn to attend to the world, this book will show you how.
What puzzled me, as someone who gets to this kind of poetry from another direction, is why the everyday is so important to Epstein. Yes, to really look at our lives is to resist distraction (though I wonder if, say, generating or reading the catalogue of facial movements in Goldsmith’s Fidget isn’t as distracting as anything); and yes, the everyday really is intriguing, entertaining even. Yes, to see what’s around us awakens us to political and cultural circumstances we might want to avoid. And yes, seeing the world around us makes us better people in a tangible way. As Hope Jahren puts it in her memoir, Lab Girl, if you look closely enough at the world, you are a scientist. But what really is the point? (And does my desire for one mean that I’m yearning for abstractions to jet me away from the material point here?)
Epstein gets at one reason in his Schuyler chapter when he quotes Fairfield Porter. ‘’Art permits you to accept illogical immediacy, and in doing so, releases you from chasing after the distant and the ideal’’ (81). How I wish this quotation had returned later in the book, when Epstein’s poets arrive at more political readings of the everyday.
To my mind, close attention to the everyday offers a formidable shield (wrong metaphor, I know) against fundamentalism or ideological fixity. It enables us to see each other as persons rather than as cogs in a larger system. We are that, certainly, but we aim to become free radicals! Hence, Mayer and other mother-poets attend both to the children they love and to the cultural and political structures that would prevent them from loving and working at the same time. To love and work is to write a poem. Close attention is a crucial ingredient in compassion. Compassion is a politics that accrues, however slowly.
(That Epstein only writes about biological motherhood irked this adoptive mother, because non-biological motherhood or in vitro motherhood or surrogate motherhood have been examined by so many poet parents by now. Each has its own ordinary, along with the one they all share.)
But, while attention to detail and not to scaffolding may liberate us, just a tad, from the strictures that bind us, that attention can seem as drab as garbage (and I’m sorry but long catalogues of garbage do not make me appreciate it much more, and much contemporary ecopoetry points more to the actual harm of garbage than to its Ammonsian wonders). See Allison Cobb. It’s here that I note the fact that there is but one entry in the index to Buddhism. The word appears on page 7 (of 346) in a long list of reasons for post-war poetry’s turn to attention as its subject: ‘the pervasive influence of Buddhism and eastern religions, with their call for mindfulness and attention to immediate experience.’ That’s it.
I can’t quarrel with the fact that critics need to contain their subjects or risk writing the interminable book, one that gets them to the grave faster than to tenure or promotion. But my own investment is in this form of attentiveness, and I think it also throws a wrench into the binary of ‘hierarchy’ and ‘reverse hierarchy,’ as well as in poets’ move away from what Epstein calls ‘the transformation trope.’ He finds that move in poems by James Wright and other specialists of the Deep Image. It’s when you write a poem about an ordinary scene (complete with plain-spoken narrative) and then leap out of it, violently and beautifully. It’s Wright’s encounter with a horse, a real one, that ends: ‘Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom’ (quoted on 23).
A poem that emerges from Buddhist practice neither remains material nor breaks the body into blossom. Instead, if it doesn’t find the world in a grain of sand, it does find reverence in close encounters with it. Attention, then, offers joy, but it also offers freedom from attachment. And that’s where its politics comes in.
As Simone Weil writes, in Epstein’s one quotation from her work, by way of Robert Hass: ‘attention, Simone Weil said, is prayer, and form in art is the way attention come to life’ (quoted on 13). For the most part, Epstein’s canon contains materialist poets, for whom the everyday is both all there is and what matters most. Another canon includes Buddhist poets, for whom the everyday is all there is and what matters most, but includes the spirit. The spirit need not ascend; it can be embodied. Like matter, it passes. In its passing we find the meaning of what it is and also that it disappears.
We also locate compassion for what disappears. I wish I’d written Epstein’s book; it’s a significant contribution to the study of post-World War II literature and western thinking. But I would have wanted to think more about questions of spirit and compassion in daily life. So here’s the briefest of prolegomena:
Where does one find the ordinary not as inventory (Goldsmith, even Mayer), nor as transcendence, but as something betwixt and between? Here’s a poem by the late Albert Saijo:
WOKE UP THIS MORNING TO SEE BUSH BUNNY BABY DEAD UNDER PIANO BENCH — JUST HEAD EATEN OFF — REST UNSCRATCHED — NOT DEAD HARD YET — SOFT AND LIMP — SMALL PERFECT BUSH BUNNY BABY WITH SOFTEST PELAGE — PERFECT FEET — WHITE UNDER THE TAIL — PERFECT FURRED BALLS — BUT WITH NO EYES NOSE MOUTH EARS — HEAD EATEN OFF — PERFECT BUSH BUNNY BABY EXCEPT DEAD WITH HEAD EATEN OFF
This is a poem about perfection, but that perfection is not poem-perfect. It’s death that perfects the bush bunny, not the poem. There’s no hereafter in the poem, just the beautiful bush bunny corpse. The poem has not failed, because it hardly claims to be poem (like all of Saijo’s work, it originated in his on-going scribbling in journals). The poem was plucked out of the larger on-going dailiness of his writing, but it remains inside of time. ‘WOKE UP THIS MORNING’ is more certain a time than ‘I danced with daffodils’ or ‘And of the curveship lend a myth to God.’ There’s no getting away from the bunny’s death, the cat’s ravages, but there’s also no getting away from the beauty of the corpse, which is not to say the souls of bunny or poet.
Or, Hank Lazer, from his new book, appropriately titled, Poems Hidden in Plain View, from 2/8/09: ‘seeking work / in a world / that barely exists / how the word cancer changes everything’ (123). The book, while new, has already collected a dead bug on just this page, which ends not with work or cancer, but with ‘an inrushing / of love.’ That inrushing is not inevitable. It might be anger or it might be confusion. Instead, it’s accidental, random, grace-full.
Lazer’s words seem to mean less when they’re taken off the poem-page and pushed in with the prose (Lerner claims the opposite, that he loves best the poems set off in prose). But what strikes me about this short series of lines is the sudden coming together of world, work, and cancer. There’s an explosion of affect in me when I arrive at the word ‘cancer,’ one I can’t chart with any logic. It’s similar to my feelings as I read Saijo’s poem. In one sense, there’s so little there on the page; in another, there’s palpable ache (and joy) in my body. It may not take the top of my head off, as Dickinson said good poems do, but it does peel some layers of protective tissue off my feelings, which are also my thoughts. (Thought + Feeling = Wisdom.)
This process of peeling back, of burning off, of detaching in the way Simone Weil intends — who learned her vocabulary from Eastern religions — requires time. What Ron Silliman and Kenneth Goldsmith refuse to offer me is time in which to think about their catalogues. I cannot meditate on every facial movement I make in a day, but I can consider them slowly, one by one. To feel compassion, oddly, is also to be an editor. Just as grief is a kind of editing, so too is this feeling for; it’s as much letting go as it is taking on.
For me, the act of thinking poetically (which both precedes poems and takes part in them) frees the perceiver, rather than thrusting material at her. The poem does not demand feeling from the reader, but creates the possibility for it. That’s another reason why I so often counsel my students to take off the last two or three or four lines of their poems. That’s where the morals arrive, and morals inevitably make all too certain demands of us.
My nearly 17-year old son, Sangha, came home the other day. Some days he hardly says a word, other days he overwhelms me with the baseball highlights we both love. This day he said he’d met a really nice homeless guy at the bus stop. The guy told him someone had dropped off rubber slippers (flip flops) for him, but he left them behind. He didn’t need them, as he could walk just as easily barefoot. In a city with an exploding homeless problem; in a city where million dollar condos are going up like mushrooms; in a city where BMWs drive by homeless encampments, that statement contains a politics. Its politics is either ironic, or it’s pointed. But it is also true. Who among us needs much? That’s what the conversation between him and my son was about. It is not a poem, but I read it the way I read poems.
Steel Wagstaff helps me realize that this anecdote resembles a Charles Reznikoff poem; I often teach his ‘Negroes,’ though Steel sends me a link to ‘[during the Second World War]’ which tells the story of an Italian immigrant shop keeper who feels certain that his son is going to die in the War. When the speaker returns afterward, he finds out that the man’s son survived. He gives the speaker apples. That gift mirrors the gift Reznikoff offers his reader; in its own way mysterious, it communicates thanks to the speaker without asking that he pay for apple or moral tag.
‘I hate poems’ for me, as professor, as daughter to a woman who said repeatedly, ‘You only write for other poets, don’t you?’ translates ‘I don’t understand poems.’ The desire to understand (somehow contain, control, manipulate) poems is great, in large part because we are taught to understand. But the meaning we ascribe to ‘understanding’ is off. There is so much I don’t understand: music, physics, marketing, today’s rain. What I do not understand is often beautiful.
As George Oppen wrote with greater eloquence at the end of his life: ‘I think there is no light in the world but the world. And I think there is light. My happiness is the knowledge of all we do not know.’ So if you feel as if you don’t understand a poem, chant along with Brian Teare at the end of his poem, ‘I lay down my gaze as one lays down one’s weapons’:
WHEN I GIVE UP
I FEEL A LOT BETTER
The title of my essay comes from Brian Teare.
Allison Cobb, Plastic: An Autobiography, Essay Press 35: http://www.essaypress.org/ep-35/
Andrew Epstein, Attention Equals Life, Oxford, 2016.
Hank Lazer, Poems Hidden in Plain View, Presses universitaires de Rouen et du Havre, 2016.
Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
George Oppen, http://www.bigbridge.org/BB14/OP-RUD.HTM
Marjorie Perloff, ‘Whose New American Poetry? Anthologizing in the Nineties,’ Diacritics, 26, 3-4 (Fall-Winter 1996): 104-23.
Charles Reznikoff, http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/55500
Albert Saijo, WOODRAT FLAT, Tinfish Press, 2015. (posthumous)
Brian Teare, The Empty Form Goes All the Way to Heaven, Ahsahta Press, 2015.