Every so often a book lands in your hands just when you need it.
I happened upon The Art of Attention: A Poet’s Eye, by Donald Revell, the other day. I had started it at some point because it was underlined for several pages, but in the daily onslaught I had somehow lost track of it. But here it was and I had the time to read it, so I started again.
But before I get to what I found so sustaining in this little book, a bit of backstory: I have had a horrible winter/spring, and have found the desire to write anything has simply evaporated. My chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia flared, and I tumbled down the rabbit hole of pain and panic again. It isn’t my first rodeo, so I should know how to handle these flare-ups, but there have been too many too close together for too long. I’ve lost my equilibrium.
Feeling unmoored in all ways, I’ve felt more so in my writing. What is this drivel? I think, looking at pathetic lines on the page. More importantly, why the effort when everything takes so much effort? I have joined a lovely group of poets that meet monthly, and suddenly I am aware of what good poems are. And I want to write them. But the more I try, the more stilted my efforts. It is as if I’ve lost my innocence, my native language. What is a poem, anyway?
A poem, according to Revell, “is a plain record of one’s entire presence….the poetry of attention is acceptance….the poetry of attention proposes a heroic unoriginality whose entire faith rests in the tireless originality of the real.” Something in me accedes—yes! I like in particular the word “plain” in contrast to “entire presence.” Plain is serviceable, every day, yet entire presence is all that we have, it is everything.
I think of some of my favorite poets, and notice the plainness of their language. Here is an excerpt of Denise Levertov’s poem, “In California: Morning, Evening, Late January”.
Pale, then enkindled,
summits of palm and pine,
Soon the roar
cropping the already short
grass of lawns…..
and other grass, unmown,
no green more brilliant.
At day’s end the whole sky,
vast, unstinting, flooded with transparent
tint of wisteria,
over the malls, the industrial parks,
the homes with the lights going on,
the homeless arranging their bundles.
. . .
Who can utter
the poignance of all that is constantly
threatened, invaded, expended
persists in beauty,
tranquil as this young moon
just risen and slowly
from the vanished sun.
Who can utter
the praise of such generosity
or the shame?
“In California” By Denise Levertov, from A Door in the Hive
This is plain language, unversifying verse. Notice how she transforms a normal ordinary day, seeing in it both tragedy and exquisite beauty. “As you see, so at length shall you say,” Revell says, and here the eye takes in with absolute accuracy what it sees, what it finds. The poem, Revell tells us, is found material, “The key to the poetry of attention is acceptance.” Levertov’s eye takes in all, the humble, the homeless, the mauve light. All that she sees cumulates in the final section, with the first and final stanzas’s beginning with the line “Who can utter….?” This line, repeated, indicates the poet’s recognition of her own limitations, the limitations of words to convey the magnitude of what the eye takes in. This humility, this kenosis, Revell says, is also imperative in the poetry of attention. It allows the poet to empty herself, to accept a limited role. This paradoxically frees her.
Which reminds me of the Buddhist story of the finger pointing to the moon:
“Truth has nothing to do with words. Truth can be likened to the bright moon in the sky. Words, in this case, can be likened to a finger. The finger can point to the moon’s location. However, the finger is not the moon. To look at the moon, it is necessary to gaze beyond the finger, right?”
Writers don’t have to be the moon, or create it. We just have to point to it.