I often use this poem, The Summer Day by Mary Oliver, in my poetry workshops to demonstrate the importance of paying attention in the writing of poems:
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
For me the crucial line is: “I do know how to pay attention…” I wonder how many of us could make the same claim. Paying attention is one of the most important aspects of learning to write poetry but also is essential in terms of living one’s life meaningfully, since, as she says, “everything die[s] at last, and too soon.”
We can skip and skate along on the surface, distracted and over-stimulated or try to learn how to go deeper, how to pay attention. Those who have studied different forms of prayer and meditation will understand the importance of paying attention in terms of being fully present to the moment, to an individual, to something in nature. There is danger as well as opportunity in this if we believe what William Blake says, “we always become what we behold.”
The poet, Donald Revell, says, “poetry is a form of attention, itself the consequence of attention. In the poetry of attention, the poet comes to his senses. Beginning in the senses, imagination senses farther, senses more. Poems rejoice in particular in detail. If you listen, look, taste, touch, smell closely, a transformation can be accomplished. This transformation happens not because of mind but because attending so closely one comes to know the thing, a simple absolute accuracy, an accuracy made by the senses.”
It seems to me that this is becoming harder and harder to do. Having entered into the electronic age our attention is so fractured that to truly focus on any one thing seems almost impossible. What does one need in order to be able to pay attention? A cultured silence would have to be a part of it, getting rid of things, distractions and even, perhaps, some relationships and, maybe, relearning how to breathe.
The 17th Century Japanese poet, Basho, said “go to the pine if you want to learn about the pine, or to the bamboo if you want to learn about the bamboo. And in doing so, you must leave your subjective preoccupation with yourself behind. Otherwise you impose yourself on the object and do not learn. Your poetry [and your life] issues of its own accord when you and the object have become one – when you have plunged deep enough into the object to see something like a hidden glimmering there.” The monk, mystic and theologian, Richard Rohr, sums it up: “for those who have learned to see, everything is holy.”
–by Sharron Singleton
Featured image, Attention by Adityo Sastromuljono. CC license.