from The Art of Attention: A Poet's Eye, Donald Revell
It happens often. I will be reading, a quiet passage concerning something wordless and near—a domestic animal, a flowering plant on a windowsill, an injured bird—and suddenly I find myself still reading the poem but praying too, asking God to watch over the animal, to prosper the flower, to mend the bird. It seems ridiculous, especially when I remember that the poem was written a while ago, sometimes a very long while ago, and that in all likelihood the subject of my prayer has long since died. Nevertheless, it's wonderful to be drawn to attend what I am reading so entirely that even its most ephemeral presences are Present to me and matters of concern. Nothing is impossible for such a poem. More than convincing, it is a conviction. More than moving, it is a perpetual, worldly motion. Over my years of reading and writing and teaching, I have hoped to understand just how such conviction, such motion is made to happen. And now I see that poetry is a form of attention, itself the consequence of attention. And, too, I believe that poems are presences, themselves the consequence of vivid presentations, events as may be called, in Dame Julian of Norwich's word, "showings." The attention of reading makes a present case first made, however long ago, by poetry's attention to a kitten or a rose, a crow or a cataclysm. So Ralph Waldo Emerson was right to say, in the American Scholar, "There is then creative reading as well as creative writing," and the best poems are irresistible invitations to just such reading because the attention they have paid literally begets a present attention. The creative act is continuous, before, during, and after the poem. An attentive poet delights in this continuity. It is her actual Nature and natural habitat. Let's see.
In "Souvenir d'amitié" (from her 1970 collection Relearning the Alphabet), Denise Levertov quietly effects some astonishing conversions.
Two fading red spots mark on my thighs
where a flea from the fur of a black, curly, yearning dog
bit me, casually, and returned into the fur.
Melanie was the dog's name. That afternoon
she had torn the screen from a door and littered fragments
of screen everywhere, and of chewed-up paper,
stars, whole constellations of paper, glimmered
in shadowy floor corners. She had been punished, adequately;
this was not a first offense. And forgiven,
but sadly: her master knew she would soon discover
other ways to show forth her discontent, her black humor.
Meanwhile, standing on hind legs like a human child,
she came to lean her body, her arms and head,
in my lap. I was a friendly stranger. She gave me
a share of her loneliness, her warmth, her flea.
And there I go, after more than thirty years, praying for Melanie. Just how it is that this long-dead domestic mischief, this chienne méchante, concerns me so, right now, yet again, is the product and creation of Levertov's sustained attention. Think of the poem's great canonical ancestor, John Donne's naughty carpe diem masterpiece "The Flea," and delight at how Levertov has, with the heart in her eyes, converted predatory seduction into amity, converted the formality of rhetoric into tenderness and notice. The poem goes past its words, all the way to Melanie and all the way to now. How? By beginning to see and then continuing to see. The poem's trajectory is an eyebeam, not an outline. It is a visual sequence. The sight of those flea bites conjures a very present vision of the dog and all the vivid particulars of her afternoon's misadventure. Levertov more than remembers them; she composes in their presence. By writing very close to these particulars, taking instruction from their specific gravity ("black, curly, yearning") and their local enormity ("whole constellations of paper"), she sees farther than any lyric conceit or mere metaphor would allow, all the way over into the loneliness vision lets her share. Thus is amity actually created. Thus does amity still continue in us, though Denise and Melanie are gone. The poem is warm, not with argument, but with attention.
I am speaking of intimacy, which is an occasion of attention. It is the intimacy of poetry that makes our art such a beautiful recourse from the disgrace and manipulations of public speech, of empty rhetoric. A poem that begins to see and then continues seeing is not deceived, nor is it deceptive. It never strays, neither into habit nor abstraction. It is an intimacy in which creative writing and creative reading (the poet reads the world with writing) share together continuous presentations of this world: ones and ones. Such a relation can be tremendous, as Walt Whitman showed:
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
Here, it is Whitman's sense of an ongoing creation ("there are millions of suns left,") that assures us the intimacy of poetry remains original. Attention is procreative. Stopping with Walt, we do not stop at all; rather, we fix our senses upon the everlastingly primary text that he, a few lines farther on in "Song of Myself," calls "the procreant urge of the world." The poem of attention is not merely a work in progress; it is a work of progress in the most natural sense. Thus is attention an urgent and ecological peace, and what could be more urgent, here and now?
No occasion in modern American poetry can have been more urgent and more complexly intimate with the problem of peace than Ezra Pound's confinement in the gorilla cage at Pisa. Driven to wild error and, as some would have it, to treason by a passion for peace and hatred of war, Pound found himself confined to the very strictest intimacy: a solitude with nothing to read except the ground at his feet and the unfolding text of the sky to which his cell was open, night and day. The progress of such strict intimacy remains to be seen in poems he read and wrote from those texts, The Pisan Cantos. Stopped cold in a cage, Pound, almost in spite of himself (he never was a very big fan of Whitman's), found himself in full possession of "the origin of all poems," the continuous present as presented to his eye and to his loneliness, instantly companioned by new intimates. Follow, if you will, the trajectory of this particular eyebeam from the end of "Canto LXXX:"
as the young lizard extends his leopard spots
along the grass-blade seeking the green midge
half an ant-size
and the Serpentine will look just the same
and the gulls be as neat on the pond
and the sunken garden unchanged
and God knows what else is left of our London
my London, your London
and if her green elegance
remains on this side of my rain ditch
puss lizard will lunch on some other T-bone
sunset grand couturier.
So does the poetry of attention indite salvation, restoration, and peace. Pound sees the lizard in its wild enormity stalking prey along a grass-blade. The world is at work, dramatic and wide. Nature is not arrested. All's well. And this wellness seen up close goes far, all the way to Pound's beloved London where the river, gulls, and garden also go on. His faith restored by sight, Pound continues to see, and the elegant drama of lizard and green fly unfolds along his rain ditch. The pleasures of peace and the gifts of civilization and society are given freely to the open eye by the undetained light of a sunset, the new Pound's (his poem has made him new) "grand couturier." Everywhere in The Pisan Cantos, Pound the hysterical aesthete is calmed and renovated by intimates of his eye, as here, in "Canto LXXXIII:"
mint springs up again
in spite of Jones' rodents
as had the clover by the gorilla cage
with a four-leaf
When the mind swings by a grass-blade
an ant's forefoot shall save you
the clover leaf smells and tastes as its flower
In the poetry of attention, the poet comes to his senses. He is saved along the way. Proud mind, which loves to impose itself between appearance and reality (such imposition lies at the core of all bad poems), "swings by a grass-blade" until fact, in the shape of "an ant's forefoot," strides to the rescue. Fact is, faith is, appearance and reality remain tenderly intimate at the origin of poems. Pound knows, having come to his senses: "the clover leaf smells and tastes as its flower." In the attentive occasion that is truth in poetry, what you see is what you get. O taste and see.
As to matters of craft, who among us would wish to be known as "crafty?" The art of poetry is not about the acquisition of wiles or the deployment of strategies. Beginning in the senses, imagination senses farther, senses more. Remember this famous avowal from William Blake's "Vision of the Last Judgement:"
"What," it will be questioned, "when the sun rises do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a guinea?" Oh no, no! I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!" I question not my corporeal or vegetative eye any more than I would question a window concerning a sight. I look through it and not with it.
That "disk of fire somewhat like a guinea" condemns craft and all its clever coinage. Blake sees the heavenly host and not something "like" it. His imagination is the capacity of his eye. The art of poetry, then, involves the sustained and sustaining increase of just this capacity. At sunrise, we may see the sun rising, which is, in fact, a host rejoicing. There you go. Blake sees, and then Blake sees more. The capacity of his eye is the direct consequence of his faith: not faith in a dogma or superstition or simple wish, but faith in his eye. The poetry of attention is not metaphysical. It trusts the opened eye to see. By faith, the eye stays open. And so the work of poetry is trust that, by faith, is shown to be no work at all.
Who would wish to be known as "crafty"? Not Blake. And certainly not his luminous contemporary, Goethe. Consider this passage from his Conversations with Johann Peter Eckermann.
". . . And, finally, how much time is lost in invention, internal arrangement, and combination! for which nobody thanks us, even supposing our work happily accomplished.
"With a given material, on the other hand, all goes easier and better.
Time "lost in invention, internal arrangement, and combination" —sounds to me a chillingly accurate assessment of our poetry workshops on any given day. As Blake trusts his eye, Goethe trusts his material. Again the poetry of attention is not metaphysical; it succeeds by faith alone. The opened eye will see, and light will shape the materials given freely to a poet. What need for invention? As it turns out, craft is to poetry what invention is to the imagination—not antithetical, but needless. The eye does not invent the light; there's no need. The mind makes no materials; it doesn't have to. Imagination is the present state of things, and poems rejoice—in particular, in detail—that this is so. Again, the only work is trust, a trust rewarded by ease and by betterment.
The art of poetry is the abolition of doubt. But given human nature, given the vast networks of skeptical re/presentation that human language deploys against the sovereign present state (i.e., against the imagination, Blake's innumerable company), the task of abolition seems strangely formidable. Language purports to fill a need. But what if, as the eye can see, there is no need? Why represent what is surely present? Too, our language is the material of our thoughts. But what if the lavish providence of reality requires no repair, no thought? We must somehow learn to be careless. Though we cannot be unlanguaged we may, perhaps, sometimes by poetry, be unburdened of cares our words presume. Here's a passage from Book III of William Carlos Williams's Paterson.
Only one answer: write carelessly so that nothing that is not green will survive.
The poetry of attention thrives on carelessness, even as it outspeeds our cares. Greenness is a current even that must keep current (courant, running) to survive. And so, it seems, to abolish doubt we must study velocities. It's easy, just as Goethe implies. The eye, after all, is well acquainted with the speed of light.
About the Author
Donald Revell is the author of ten poetry collections, including A Thief of Strings, Pennyweight Windows: New & Selected Poems and My Mojave, which won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. He teaches at the University of Utah, and lives in the desert south of Las Vegas.