POETRY AS PRACTICE
How Paying Attention Helps Us Improve Our Writing in the Age of Distraction
A Craft Essay
by Scott Edward Anderson
In this lyrical essay on the writing life, Scott Edward Anderson shows how poetry can be more than a formal approach to writing, more than an activity of technique, but a way to approach the world, which is good for both the poet and the poem.—Grant Clauser, Editor
Walking in Wissahickon Park after dropping my twins at their school in Philadelphia, I find muddy trails from the night’s heavy rains and temporary streams running along my path. The fuchsia flowers of a redbud tree shine brilliantly against the green of early leafing shrubs. A few chipmunks scurry among leaves on the forest floor. Birdsong is all around me: I note some of the birds—if they are bright enough and close enough to the trail or I recognize their song—the red flash of a cardinal lights on a branch nearby; a robin lands on the trail ahead, scraping his yellow beak against a rock.
Observation like this helps feed my database of images, fragments of music, and overheard speech, which prepares my poetry-brain for the work of choosing words, putting them in a certain order, and forming phrases into lines, stanzas, and eventually entire poems.
Remembering a line I’m working on, I worry it like a dog with a bone, gnawing on the words, their syntax, imagery, sound or feel in my mouth and mind. Playing with the line, I’ll follow it until it leads somewhere or dumps me in a ditch, when I’ll file it away for another day. I’m paying attention to where the poem wants to go.
Paying attention in the age of distraction is hard. At any moment, there is a myriad of distractions tempting us away from our writing: the latest bombastic tweet by our deranged president; someone posting a delicious plate of food on Instagram; or the steady stream of Facebook posts showing all my poet-friends and acquaintances meeting-up at AWP.
Paying attention in the age of distraction is hard. At any moment, there is a myriad of distractions tempting us away from our writing.
In many ways, the writing life seemed easier in the age of the typewriter—nothing but a blank page staring back at me, waiting for my fingers to move. No smartphone at the ready buzzing with the latest text from my wife, my kids, that Amazon.com delivery. “Let’s just take a minute and see who it is,” I say to myself. “I’ll get back to the writing.”
Consequently, it’s worse when writing on a computer, especially if it’s connected to the Internet. Writing something about a bird I heard singing on my walk this morning, I wonder—are they found here? At this time of year? Is that the song I heard? Let’s just take a look at the Cornell Bird Observatory website and verify…wait, is it the Bird Observatory or Center for Ornithology? (Minimizes Word document and clicks open browser…ah, it’s the Cornell Lab of Ornithology…I feel better.)
Poetry, the late Mark Strand wrote, “allows us to have the life we are denied because we are too busy living. Even more paradoxically, poetry permits us to live in ourselves as if we were just out of reach of ourselves.”
If we’re paying attention, however, we can put our busy lives in perspective, create a context for what we’re doing on this planet. Lived like this, life is not about going through the motions; rather, we actively participate in life, in all its facets. And for poets, this means approaching life with eyes open and taking notes.
“I have no clear goal in mind for the notes I take,” poet and essayist Alison Hawthorne Deming writes in Writing the Sacred Into the Real. “Other than to help myself remember the intensities of the day, the mix of sensation and thought as it rises and falls with the swells.”
For me, note-taking happens sporadically. Ordinarily, I work on poems in my head for a long time before I put anything on paper. As I get older, however, I find taking notes helps—especially if I’m busy with daily life—work, family, getting the dry cleaning. The “Notes” app on my iPhone is one repository; notebooks and the occasional scrap of paper are another.
As with Deming’s, my note-taking may or may not lead to a poem or an essay or much of anything. Yet, as she imparts, “taking them forces a kind of attention that makes the experience richer, and attention is central to both artistic and spiritual practice.”
Practice. That word speaks to me: poetry as practice feels right. We are amateurs of a sort at translating the unsayable, doing so requires attention and practice. While we must pay attention to fleeting moments of inspiration, more often we’re slogging away at draft upon draft of a poem, trying to find where the poem really wants to go.
And for this we need daily practice. Ezra Pound suggested poets write 70 lines a day; novelist Graham Greene stuck to 350-500 words per day and would quit as soon as he hit that limit. Counting it out, I find it is close to the same amount, given a typical line-length in contemporary poetry. (Accordingly, this being the age of distraction, I don’t trust my memory of Greene’s word-limit, so, I double-check. There are conflicting numbers even from Greene himself, so I’ll stick with this range.)
Working the poetry-brain in this way makes it easier to pay attention, not only to our surroundings, but to our words and what the poem is trying to say. Moreover, this is a reciprocal act, regenerative: paying attention is what poet Mary Oliver calls “our endless and proper work.”
The practice of poetry, like yoga, meditation, exercise or any other practice prepares us for paying attention. Consequently, attentiveness leads to a richer poetry, grounded in place, specificity, and real-world observation that can make a poem come to life and help the reader see the world in a different way.
As with Alison Deming’s note-taking, whether we get anything “done” or accomplished in terms of a draft or a finished poem is beside the point. The act of practice alone makes it easier to get work done and makes us more receptive, more available to the poems we must write. In turn, practicing our writing, through note-taking or drafting, makes observation easier. Through this practice, we become more attuned to the world around us and the poems tend to come easier. (Well, at least the bad first drafts!)
For me, the practice of paying attention is part of the practice of poetry, as the practice of poetry is part of paying attention, a cyclical, symbiotic relationship. This type of attentiveness I’m writing about is akin to what Zen practitioners call deep listening.
As the Zen practice implies, deep listening requires complete receptivity—an openness and attentiveness to what’s possible and to asking questions. If we have a question to answer through poetry, we need to ask it. Nevertheless, it sometimes seems like our minds are on auto-pilot and we are not truly paying attention, causing us to miss both questions and answers.
This deep listening and acute attentiveness is a form of tuning to the right frequency.
This deep listening and acute attentiveness is a form of tuning to the right frequency. Like the dial on a car radio, if you turn a little too much to the right or left, you lose the signal. Through the act of paying attention, we fine-tune our ability to find the right frequency. Think of a new violinist searching for the right notes with bow to strings—it takes practice to make melodious music.
One winter a painted bunting shows up in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park near where I live. He’s lost his way and finds refuge for several weeks foraging among the native grasses and shrubs behind the ice rink.
I’ve seen painted buntings before, in their southern, native habitat, so I want to see this Brooklyn visitor who strayed far from where he belongs. Finding his general location is easy; I look for a large group of birders: scopes and field glasses and big-lensed cameras trained on the spot. Even with his bright, variegated plumage, however, it proves hard to make him out among the reds, greens, and yellows of the meadow floor. Watching me stare at one spot for five minutes, my dog grows impatient.
Then, a flash of movement to the left catches my eye and I notice a bit of cobalt blue where that color can’t be. There he is, the painted bunting, as resplendent as I’d imagined: worth the wait, worth looking hard for, worth the patience and effort.
A poem can be like that bunting: elusive, hard to pin down, but once you’ve got it, you can’t let go. Paying attention to the colors hiding deep within the grasses, we find the kernel of a line or a phrase that leads to another line, and another. Sometimes obscured, sometimes difficult to extract.
As a poem takes shape, it requires attentiveness too. Am I using the right words to say what the poem wants to say? Are my line breaks speeding up or slowing down the reader? What is the cadence, tone, and sound of the poem saying and is it appropriate to the subject matter? These are all questions I ask myself while revising my poems, being attentive to what is happening in the poem and how I can help make it clearer—to get out of its way and let the poem tell itself. This kind of attentiveness to the poem, tuning the dial up or down to hone-in on the frequencies allows the poem to cut through the noise.
Looking at the world more closely requires a twofold approach to paying attention: outward and inward. Outward: what’s going on around you and what you see, what you notice. Inward: what’s going on within you and your reactions to what you notice. Combined, this inward and outward focus develops our ability to see things others do not see and allows us to call attention to those things in our writing. Inward-focused attention also helps turn observation into a poem, aligning the frequencies and images into metaphor through a complex process of our own devising.
Not to overplay the spiritual aspects inherent in this level of paying attention, it is, in part, a form of showing up, of being present, that can’t quite escape a spiritual element. Distractions govern so much of our lives—from social media to work-life—we so rarely allow time for a deep attentiveness. If we make it a practice, however, we can begin to form insights and become more receptive to the poetry even in our everyday lives.
Perhaps paying attention helps us uncover the unsayable, the unseeable, what needs seeing and saying in our poetry. Of course, paying attention in this age of distraction requires retraining ourselves in many respects. From my own practice, however, I find the more time I put into being attentive—inwardly and outwardly—the more often it leads to better poems.
Writing poetry may be an unnatural act, as Elizabeth Bishop once said, but through daily practice and paying attention, it may become a bit more natural or at least it appears that way to the reader.
Scott Edward Anderson is the author of Fallow Field (Aldrich Press, 2013) and Walks In Nature’s Empire (The Countryman Press, 1995). He has been a Concordia Fellow at the Millay Colony for the Arts and received the Nebraska Review Award. His work has appeared in The American Poetry Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Cimarron Review, The Cortland Review, Many Mountains Moving, Nebraska Review, Pine Hills Review, Terrain, Yellow Chair Review, The Wayfarer, and the anthologies Dogs Singing (Salmon Poetry, 2011) and The Incredible Sestina Anthology (Write Bloody, 2013), among other publications. You can read more about his work at his website and follow him on Twitter @greenskeptic