“Beyond all doubt it is best to have made one’s first acquaintance with Spenser in a very large—and, preferably, illustrated—edition of The Faerie Queene, on a wet day, between the ages of twelve and sixteen…” – C. S. Lewis
An existential irony exists today, in which we have been insulated from our world by noise. Because our senses are constantly bombarded, we must tune down our sensitivity to the world in order to cope with it all. The loudest, most urgent noises make it through, and we process them, often according to priority of urgency. The net effect is to silence our ears to the rest of the world and its subtleties.
I needn’t delve into the many well-documented repercussions of this chronic clamor on our psyches. We know most of them only too well. But I will mention one lesser-known one, and that is the effect on our relationship to art.
If art were a car, it would run on attention—deep, high-octane attention.
Attention narrows our focus onto an object, allowing it to expand and increasingly fill our consciousness. Nearly anything can serve as a bottomless well of curiosity, surprise, and metaphor given sufficient attention. And this is the stuff of paint and passion and poetry.
Unfortunately our protective noise wall blunts our ability to pay deep attention to many things, and so they remain silent to us. They don’t speak because we have never listened.
Well, perhaps not never. I once returned to my childhood neighborhood as an adult, not having wandered its nooks and crannies in two decades. I realized I knew every square inch of the yard, right down to the cracks and texture of the rocks along the stream. I knew the underside of the bridge, and the feel of the brittle leaves that fell from the oak trees even without touching them, because I had explored them with the exhaustive curiosity of a child.
My insatiable hunger to know the mysterious world then, and my relative freedom as a young person from noise-bombardment, compelled me to attend intensely to every detail of my surroundings. As an adult, I have come to terms with the fact that this compulsion is now not so natural to me. My body believes it knows in general what the world around me is like, and so the magnetism of mystery has diminished. But my capacity to attend to an object remains. It has even grown some since my young years as I’ve added observational tools and frameworks to my way of seeing the world.
The point I hope to make is that attention, at least for adults is a conscious choice. We must choose to devote a little time to pierce our wall of insulation from the world, and give our attention, dare I say affection, to an object—or perhaps an idea, or even a simple sense experience. It does take some time, but I mean minutes.
Initially your mind will rail against the “waste” of time, and residual noise will echo into the empty space you create. But that noise will dissipate eventually, and your object of attention will fill the space with wonderful new sounds you have not heard before.
For example, I set aside one Saturday per month for silence and solitude. The first moments of sitting down in silence are always bombarded by involuntary lists of things I need to do—reply to an email, fix the car, file a report. Each carries a little sting of urgency; it needs to be done right away. But it’s not true. It’s just the voice of constant pressure to be occupied, productive. When I deny this voice long enough, it subsides, and I’m left with a wonderfully clean mental space in which to focus on and enjoy what I choose.
A second challenge to our enjoyment of art exists, and this one raises its ugly head particularly when it comes to enjoying poetry. Its name is “I am not a poet.” I’m sad to say many seem to meet this challenge with a very poor solution, albeit understandably so. We try to counter with, “I am a poet!” or more generally, “I am a writer!”
The first step down this dangerous, doomed path is to go online and start ordering books about how to be a writer. You will find a limitless industry of fun things to buy that stem from the excitement of the idea of being a writer. From “easy step-by-step” writing books to cute and clever décor for your perfect writer’s space, you can keep buying forever while comfortably never having to actually write. You may even start to feel like a writer as you accumulate your writer’s stuff and get more and more “prepared.”
The real problem is we get more excited about being a certain kind of person (a writer) than we do about the world we want to write about. Of course this is natural. Our culture prizes identity. But the point is not to prove who we can be. It is to get ego out of the way, and to get captivated by something that will keep it out of the way long enough that we can start our journey in earnest.
Reading is the perfect start.
My journey with poetry (and art in general as a result) began in much the same way C. S. Lewis’s did with The Faerie Queene. I noticed a large, old volume of Tennyson’s poetry sitting on my parents’ library shelf in green, gold, and red floral binding. I had never read, understood, or enjoyed poetry before. On pure whim, I took it down and opened it. It was published in 1885. None of the language made any sense to me. But it smelled wonderful. And there were beautiful illustrations—rich, detailed etchings of tall, gothic castles and wild countrysides.
Somehow the mystery got a hold of me. The atmosphere got into me. The book was something I didn’t understand. But maybe, just maybe if I held it long enough I could steal a little bit from it, a tiny gem from the dense ore. Mostly I enjoyed lying by the fire and turning the delicate sepia pages from illustration to illustration. Fortunately my relative privacy in the home protected me from the shame I would have felt if someone recognized I was dabbling with something over my head, as if I were intentionally pretending erudition.
If anything, I became captivated by the aesthetic of old books more than words of poetry. But one can’t completely separate form and content from one another. Good poetry should have an exciting smell to it, and rich illustrations.
Tennyson is still over my head. But one or two poems from that volume started to make sense to me, and then became special, meaningful. Once I tasted that thrill of discovering something myself, it made me hungry to do it again. But how?
Here again, I urge some caution. You may think the thing to do is to look up a list of “classics” of this or that genre that everyone ought to read, and buy them to stock your shelves. I recommend a more linear approach. Think of the one most alluring place to start, and let one book or poem lead to another. Follow a thread of curiosity, and enjoy the serendipity of its winding, unpredictable journey.
One book leads to another. Each one has friends and forebears. Good authors’ books have many close friends.
Soon, images of your own will start to spark, and you’ll want to get in on the fun. There the old nemesis ego rises again to thwart the journey. I still maintain that I am not a poet. But I really like to write poetry. This is the only way I know how to keep on writing it. I have to deny, at least to myself, that what I’m trying to do is be a poet. The poetry is the thing.
Malcolm Guite, a poet I admire very much, once described his writing process with a sheepish grin. He said he gets some words he likes down on paper, then leans over the page and whispers to them, “Have you got any friends?” and waits to see who comes. Guite says to love the words. He doesn’t mean love words, and pens, and paper because they’re the stuff of a writer. He describes his poems as children he gets to raise up as well as he can, then send off into the world to make their own way.
Another metaphor for writing poetry occurred to me recently when I saw the movie “Free Solo.” It’s about a rock climber who climbs without a rope. He has to climb well, but also somewhat quickly. If he were to get too hung up on a climbing problem, and get too tired, he wouldn’t be able to hang on anymore, he would fall and die.
In writing, there is a creative energy and a critical energy. Both are always at work. I find the trick is to keep the creative energy (the climber) ahead of the critical energy (getting tired or stuck). In essence, I find myself trying to write a poem before my inner critic wakes up and realizes that’s what’s going on—because he will try to stop me.
Realizing you’re trying to write a poem is like looking down from your rocky ledge. Every writing second counts; it’s creative energy ticking away. It’s amazing how all the forces of nature rally to stop a writer as soon as it’s discovered that he or she is writing. I don’t mean one needs to speed-write. There’s a pace akin to that flow state we feel in sports at which you’re watching words hit the page and disappear behind you. As long as they keep coming, just keep going! Before you have time to quibble with yourself, you will have produced something worth loving at least a little, even if it needs a little more raising before being sent out into the world.
Graham Shea lives in Quincy, CA and enjoys freelance writing, outdoor adventures, and many different artistic media. He holds a BA in journalism from Pepperdine University, and an MPhil in theology from the University of Cambridge.