Forms of Poetic Attention
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Forms of Poetic Attention

Lucy Alford

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eBook - ePub

Forms of Poetic Attention

Lucy Alford

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About This Book

A poem is often read as a set of formal, technical, and conventional devices that generate meaning or affect. However, Lucy Alford suggests that poetic language might be better understood as an instrument for tuning and refining the attention. Identifying a crucial link between poetic form and the forming of attention, Alford offers a new terminology for how poetic attention works and how attention becomes a subject and object of poetry.

Forms of Poetic Attention combines close readings of a wide variety of poems with research in the philosophy, aesthetics, and psychology of attention. Drawing on the work of primarily twentieth- and twenty-first-century North American poets such as T. S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Frank O'Hara, Anne Carson, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, and Claudia Rankine, Alford defines and locates the particular forms of attention poems both require and produce. She theorizes the process of attention-making—its objects, its coordinates, its variables—while introducing a broad set of interpretive tools into the field of literary studies. Forms of Poetic Attention makes the original claim that attention is poetry's primary medium, and that the forms of attention demanded by a poem can train, hone, and refine our capacities for perception and judgment, on and off the page.

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Attending to Objects


Modes of Transitive Attention

My mother gave me my first book of poems when I was around six years old.1 Its pale green cover displayed a simple sketch of a cat, nose craning downward toward a few lines that were blades of grass. Each poem, filling a small portion of one page, addressed a single object in simple language. The subject matter of each poem was plain and unassuming: pebble, watering can, cat. Nothing happened in these poems. They simply looked, for a moment. The poems themselves were pocket sized, each a pebble to be rolled between finger and thumb or tucked under the tongue. Each was accompanied by a small drawing, filling the rest of the page. The poems composed the same act they asked of the reader: hold a small object in the attention, pause with the pebble, the watering can, the cat, the poem. Pause for the duration of a few breaths and simply attend. Details came to the fore, details in stillness that I can still conjure to this day, though the book is no longer with me, tucked deep somewhere in my childhood bookcase in an upstairs room in my mother’s house. I can recall the stillness they composed, the simplicity of their language, and the practice of looking they enacted and encouraged.
How does the poem, as formed object, compose a particular attentional stance? How does it compose attention toward the object or objects it presents? To what extent do environmental factors (immediate surroundings, social and historical setting, physical conditions) affect our ability to attend to the object and the shape our attention takes? How do the different sensory attentions (visual, auditory, olfactory, tactile) interact, isolate, and inform one another? These questions will inform part 1 of this book, exploring forms of what I have named transitive attention.
Transitive attention is attention to: it takes an object. Of course, not all objects of poetic attention are clearly identifiable as such. Poems attend not only to the face or breast of the beloved but to the edge of a sleeve, the cracked pot under the drain pipe, a certain slant of light, the crystalline comb of the pomegranate’s innards, the word blackberry. I explore the poetic object at two levels: first, the semantic object configured by the poem, through which the poem constitutes, shapes, and colors the imagined content of its focalized object or objects (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s daffodils, Charles Baudelaire’s swan, Mahmoud Darwish’s almond trees); second, the formal object that is the poem itself, of which the semantic and figurative dimension constitutes one aspect.

Poetry’s Double Transitivity: Mental Representation and Direct Perception

Poetry’s figurative work draws on, practices, and cultivates the ability to attend to what cognitive science identifies as objects of mental representation,2 while the formal dynamics of the poem exercise the ability to attend to objects of direct perception. Poetry’s dual nature as both formal and figurative object creates an intersection between imagined and direct perception, requiring the simultaneous practice of both modes. The present and really experienced work of attention takes place in the structural dynamics of the poem itself: the poem as an object crafts a set of attentional dynamics that take place in the real-time level of direct perception, orientation, selection, modulation, and assimilation. On the other hand, the imagination plays a central role in the descriptive and associative work of both reader and writer, in the invention of a poem’s figured focal object and horizon. With the poem’s composition of a semantic object, the imaginative faculty of mental representation is called upon to build in the mind a simulated experience of perception. Even the most direct observational impulse, the most faithful realism, is composed in and of the imagination. Often, within the field of mental representation, a third level opens, as objects of semantic description open to the yet more interior imaginative dimensions of metaphorization and symbolization—nested and unfolding levels of mental representation. Because of the integrated and mutually dependent nature of formal and semantic dynamics, the readings that follow move between the two levels, tracking the poems’ composition of transitive attention toward both formal and represented objects.
The temporalities involved in poetic attention correspond to these two transitive modes: the location of the figured object in time (the present object of contemplation, the past object of remembrance and elegy, the potential object of future projection, anticipation, or imagination) invokes the work of mental representation, and the temporal dynamics of the poem, its attenuative, suspensive, or accelerative qualities, refer to the present action of direct perception to the formal object. Because I address the temporal dynamics of poetic language itself in detail later on, my primary reference to temporality in this chapter will refer to the temporal location of the object of mental representation, most notably in my accounts of direct contemplation and recollective attention.
In the poem’s imaginative focalization, attention operates as the pure conjuring act of mind—not so very different from the Kantian subject’s conjuring of the phenomenal world from the synthesis of sense data and reasoning. Imaginative focalization was itself a key aspect of Kant’s philosophy—an element poised at the juncture between subjective perception and subjective cognition and between subjective cognition and the experience of objective presence.3 The imaginative work required in both the composition and reception of poetry offers an important way not only out of but also into and through the ordinary experience and perception of reality. Understanding the imagination as a key element of how attention forms and responds to the poetic object foregrounds attention’s location between interior and exterior, between the act of the mind on itself and the processing of objects in the world, a position that stretches between observation and meditation, at once rooted in the granularity of focalized perception and lifting off. The element of the imagination in poetry’s transitive attention acknowledges the subject’s active part in penetrating beyond direct perception, pushing into and opening the mystery objects hold in their modes of perceptual evasion.
We find a resonant viewpoint in Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of art, which saw fiction’s illusion-making as a salutary alternative to truth.4 Wallace Stevens, on the other hand, saw poetry’s imaginative work not as an alternative or escape but as our only source of “reality,” which is constantly composed and revised by our imaginative attempts to perceive our world. In the essay “Imagination as Value,” Stevens addresses the “struggle” between reason and imagination, proposing them as parts of a dialogic process of perception and synthesis: “we live in concepts of the imagination before the reason has established them. If this is true, then reason is simply the methodizer of the imagination. It may be that the imagination is a miracle of logic and that its exquisite divinations are calculations wholly within analysis.”5 Stevens is in this way a true Kantian: “We live in the mind.”6 And yet, for Stevens, imagination’s revisionary power and its capacity to tune and refine the art of perception is directly linked to its fidelity to the latter’s work of illuminating what is real. In this chosen form of belief, which enriches the real with the fullest life of the mind, rests the possibility of life without God—the supreme fiction—in the modern era.7 Against or alongside the conjuring of imaginary objects, the poem itself, as object, produces sense data directly as well—through sonic dynamics of rhythm, rhyme, and sonic texture, through the text’s visual and graphic dimensions, and through the material particulars of its transmission (its setting on page or screen, the social/environmental contexts surrounding the event of its reading or performance). The interaction between the sensory effects of the poem-object and the sensory content of its semantic object takes place between the cognitive modes of direct contemplation, desire, recollection, and imagination. The poem crafts attention to its object or objects not only through imagination but also through present sensory experience: imagined object merges with or rubs up against present object.

Dynamics of Transitive Attention

The five key coordinates of transitive attention I identify here are interest, intentionality, selectivity, spatiotemporal remove, and apprehension. These five terms will anchor us as we move into a more detailed discussion of how transitive attention works in the poetic context. It is important to note that these coordinates are combinatory, and combining them differently produces specific modes or inflections of transitive attention. In the sections that follow I will discuss each term, providing examples of each to show how they operate within poetic language. The chapters included in part 1 show the ways in which they combine to form and variegate poetic registers of contemplation, desire, recollection, and imagination.
Some of these coordinates concern the subject of attention, and some concern the nature of the object. Subject-oriented dynamics are those coordinates of transitive attention that concern primarily the position and attitudinal stance of the attending subject. The two subject-oriented dynamics I identify here are interest and intentionality. As mentioned earlier, it is difficult to fully extricate the subject and object in the attentive relation. However, these coordinates fall more to the side of the subject, originating in its activity, and only secondarily in the specific nature or qualities of the object. By interest, I mean the degree of investment or motivation driving the subject’s relation to the object of attention. Intentionality refers, in both direct perception and mental representation, to the nature of the act of transitive attention as either active or passive: in more precise terms, th...

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