Attention--A Poetics Statement
*A/N* It might be beneficial to read the note at the bottom first to understand the context of this paper!
Attention—“the act or power of carefully thinking about, listening to, or watching someone or something; notice, interest, or awareness.” Why would this word be so important to writing? A poem of attention—that is, a poem that pays special care to painting an immediate moment for the reader, can create a unique experience for both the writer and their audience. Reading a poem of attention can bring a moment to the reader without interpreting itself—meaning that the moment exists without the author explaining his or her intention within the text of the piece. A poem of attention is alive, present, and breathes a taste of reality in a clear way that we may otherwise have difficulty grasping.
Donald Revell discusses this concept in his essay “The Art of Attention”. He describes poetry as “a form of attention, itself the consequence of attention” (Revell 5). He focuses on utilizing poetry to bring things “here” and not “there”, and bringing the reader to the Present. According to Revell, in order to bring a poem to a state of attention, the writer must not interpret the meaning for the reader, but instead bring the moment to a state of “here-ness”, and allow the reader to interpret it as they wish. Essentially, reading a poem of attention is like watching a live concert, present and attentive. If the writer were to interpret that poem instead, it would be like watching that concert through the lens of your smart phone, your attention not as careful and focused.
Interpretation tends to tell the reader what something means rather than presenting an image. Sometimes it makes a push for originality by changing or convoluting a piece rather than letting it exist. They may simply interpret by telling us directly how something feels or how we should feel. Many times, it works in the poem’s favor. However, in my own poetics and reading of poetry, I find attention to be vital to bringing the poem to life. I enjoy the sense of immediacy and transportation that attention provides.
In his essay, Revell discusses how poetry of attention is “absorbed with what is real” (Revell 24). This way, he says, the poet is not so much concerned with originality as bringing the moment to reality, which creates originality because of its realness. This is the kind of feeling I strive to emulate in my own writing, and the kind of poetry that I tend to enjoy the most.
One poet who we have studied who utilizes attention in her work is Rae Armantrout. She allows her poems to exist, brief and thoughtful, on the page. One instance of this is in her poem “Ghosted”:
stalks with their few
a black monarch
A friend’s funeral has broken up –
or was that the last dream?
Now I’m struggling
looking for Chuck.
It’s getting dark
and I’m pissed off
because he won’t answer his cell.
The poem pays careful attention to image immediately—we can vividly imagine the black monarch sitting on tattered leaves in stanza one. This sets the tone of fragility for the next stanza, where we are placed in a graveyard; confused, frustrated, and searching for Chuck. The immediacy of lines 13 and 14, “Now I’m struggling/between monuments” make us feel as though we are the speaker, winding our way through tombstones. This is what attention captures—a sense of urgency, of intimacy, and of presence. We become so wrapped up in the speaker that we become them. Our friend’s funeral hasn’t broken up, but yet we can picture ourselves “struggling between monuments.” We don’t know Chuck, but we are irritated that he isn’t picking up his cell.
On the other hand, interpretation conveys a different feeling. Had Armantrout used interpretation in this context, the poem would have lost much of its original potency. Below, I have altered a few of the lines from the previous poem to demonstrate this concept:
It’s getting dark
and I’m pissed off
because he won’t answer his cell
and I can’t be out here
with the death and the
While the original poem is sparse and leaves the speaker’s discomfort about being left alone in the graveyard up to the reader, my version offers the speaker’s own feelings, or an interpretation. The addition of “and I can’t be out here/any longer/with the death and the/tattered leaves” works against the poem in this context because the reader is told what the speaker’s frustration stems from rather than letting it exist. The over involvement of the writer in the reading process takes away from the natural curiosity of the poem.
Revell insists that attention is necessary to providing intimacy in a poem, and is essentially what differentiates poetry from public speaking. He says “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.” (Revell 9). He might argue in favor of the idea that a poem that is not of attention is bad or lesser than one of attention. In his own poetics, he believes that poems are supposed to depict our most intimate moments, thoughts, and surroundings in an honest and clear way.
In my own poetics, I am drawn toward the adventure of attention, and the challenge of obtaining it. It can be a struggle to allow your work to be interpreted at the reader’s will instead of your own. However, I believe that poems of attention draw us closer to ourselves and those around us with their apparent simplicity, but underlying complexity.