My Secret Weapon Against the Attention Economy08/17/2021
Even before I could write, I was making up stories and songs. Or so my mother told me. She tape-recorded me reciting my creations and then typed them up. One piece, sung in 1979 when I was 5, reads in part:
Olive onion pigeon
olive onion pigeon
Mine, mine, mine, mine
Of course I have no recollection of uttering this nonsensical verse, yet in those lines, I see evidence of a child who was surfing the sounds of words. “Olive onion pigeon”: Those three trochees, with the repetition of O’s and N’s and the slant rhyme of “onion” and “pigeon,” suggest that I was attuned to the music of language. And in the repeated grasping of “mine,” I hear someone greedy for words, eager to gobble them up.
As a writer, I’m always trying to rekindle that feeling, of connecting to words through their sounds, not just their meanings. So I read poetry every day, and my reading takes a particular form: On the first day of every month, I pick a poem, and then I read that poem every day that month.
I can’t take credit for this idea; my friend Jenny suggested it to me years ago, after someone proposed it to her. That first year, I joined Jenny in reading Wallace Stevens’s “The Snow Man” in January. Repetition led to revelation: Every day, I noticed new things in the text. By the end of the month, I knew the poem by heart.
Since then, this practice has become essential. I have my own spin on it: I always read my selected poem aloud, to hear the rhythm, and I like to read it first thing in the morning. Reading the poem at dawn, with my coffee, is a kind of meditation. And rereading the same poem forces me to slow down, to hone my observations.
In January of this year, for example, I read “How to Draw a Perfect Circle,” by Terrance Hayes, a poem that is ostensibly about blind contour drawing but expands to encompass the “unboundedness” of life: “Everything is connected/By a line curling and canceling itself like the shape of a snake/Swallowing its own decadent tail or a mind that means to destroy itself.” The whole poem takes the form of a circle, each line curling and canceling itself, but it is also filled with circles. Hayes describes many round things (pupils, nipples, pearls, a paper plate, an onion, a pill) and uses dozens of words with O’s (spools, hole, blooms, wounded, loops, soul, womb), so I found my mouth making a perfect circle as I spoke. Oh, I realized. I was no longer merely reading a poem; I was embodying the text.
When I read the same poem every day, I’m training myself to ‘look without looking.’
Each month is shaped by my selected poem’s singular rhythms. Sometimes I choose a poem that is familiar but deserving of further study. That’s what led me to Emily Dickinson’s “I Measure Every Grief I Meet” — appropriately somber for a pandemic — in February, and to Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West” in March. Sometimes I choose a seasonal poem. In April, the anniversary of my mother’s death, I longed for something elegiac in tone; I ended up reading W.S. Merwin’s “Rain Light.” I peruse the websites of the Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets, as well as the archives of The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Review of Books or this magazine. I even solicit suggestions via Twitter. In May, I read Louise Glück’s “Vita Nova” (the first poem in her book of the same name); in June, I read Lucille Clifton’s “Sorrows”; in July, I read Li-Young Lee’s “Persimmons”; and in August, as I write this, I’m reading “Translations,” by Adrienne Rich.
Revisiting the same poem every day is the antithesis of the attention economy; instead of scrolling along the surface, I’m diving deep beneath it. As I walked around Brooklyn in January, Terrance Hayes’s final stanza slithered through my head: “You must look without looking to make the perfect circle./The line, the mind must be a blind continuous liquid/Until the drawing is complete.” The repetition of sound in “line,” “mind” and “blind” makes this line run together, like the “continuous liquid” it describes. And that sonic repetition also equates “mind” with “line,” suggesting that the conscious mind is straight and one-dimensional. Perhaps it’s only by disabling linear thinking that we can see how disparate elements of this world — including people — are connected.
When I read the same poem every day, I’m training myself to “look without looking.” By circling back again and again, guided by sound patterns, I let my subconscious do some of the noticing. Rather than consciously analyzing the poem, I focus on listening as the lines on the page release their music and their meaning. Repetition cultivates a deeper kind of attention, one that pushes past facile understanding to intimacy with the work. It’s the kind of intuitive, multidimensional concentration you need to draw a perfect circle or write a poem (or in my case, a story).
But you don’t have to be an artist or writer to benefit from rereading the same poem. I’d like to think that this practice of sustained concentration can also nurture human connection by encouraging the intimacy of attention. Maybe we can learn to read one another the way we read poetry, listening closely to the music we all make.
Elliott Holt is the author of the novel “You Are One of Them.”
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