Gifts to the Attentive: Opening Convocation Address 2011
August 28, 2011 By National Endowment for the Humanities Associate Professor of English and Director of Creative Writing Lisa Williams
“You know what I love? I love football. I love football . . . it’s who I am . . . it’s what I do.” Those are the words of Coach Eric Taylor in the TV series Friday Night Lights. Let me change that a little bit. “You know what I love? I love poetry. I love poetry. It’s who I am. It’s what I do.” When Dean Fabritius asked me to speak tonight, I knew there was only one thing I could talk about. Poetry. It’s pretty much my life. The problem is, what could I say? What can I say that might be relevant?
Growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, I didn’t see poems or poets around me. I certainly didn’t see women poets. There was some Frost and some Yeats on my mother’s bookshelf. We were made to read Tennyson and Shakespeare in high school. I liked reading, but poetry wasn’t what I read. Then, in my second year in college, I took an American Lit. class, and I read a poem ending with these lines:
The gold tree is blue,
The singer has pulled his cloak over his head.
The moon is in the folds of the cloak.
“The moon is in the folds of the cloak.” It was like one of those scenes from a movie, where suddenly there’s a crack in the ground in front of you and everything opens up and the landscape is utterly changed. People are running in all directions and you’ve got to decide what to do. Except that this sort of happened in my own mind. I imagined reaching into the sky and pulling the moon down and tucking it in my coat. I remember thinking and thinking about it. How weird it was. How disconcerting and destabilizing. And we were reading it in a class!
The poem that contained these lines was written by Wallace Stevens. I started reading more poetry, by him and others. And I started writing. I just loved putting words together. I used words like “incisive” and “lucid” and “wavering” for the first time. It can take a while for someone who writes poetry to learn that the words “poetry” and “pretentious” start with the same letter.
I’m lucky to shape my life around it—reading, writing, and teaching what I love. And because I teach it, and spread it around, I keep finding myself coming back to the question: What is poetry good for?
Poets in the U.S. today aren’t usually elevated, as they are, say, in Bulgaria or Chile, where their work truly registers, and has registered, a vital consciousness. In some countries, writers have died for their poetic speech. For their imaginations that travelled beyond what is to what could be, for imagining, and giving voice to, a better world.
In such situations, poetry is not useless. For to speak something can mean it is on the way to being. That scares the oppressors. They know the dangers of imaginative speech. They know it can lead to change.
Here in the U.S., not writing with the urgency of an actual revolution behind my words, I have to ask myself: what is this thing I spend so much time thinking about, reading, and teaching? Sure, I enjoy it. In fact, every time I begin to read a poem—and this may be your poem, if you’re my student—there’s this excitement of possibility at what I’ll encounter. I still get butterflies in my stomach when I sit down with the first stack of student poems from a class because I can’t wait to see what I’ll find.
But outside of that, is it just an escape? A decadence, a luxury, for special occasions, for people with too much time on their hands? What’s the point?
I’ve called poetry “soulful communication.” That’s built on things others have said, such as Coleridge’s claim that poetry brings “the whole soul of man into activity.” Whether or not you are religious, the word “soul” has a richness to it. I associate the word with a more thinking, feeling self: a mind of merged intellect and feeling.
The word “activity” also seems key. You know, people will sometimes tell me they are frustrated because they can’t get the “message” of a poem. I tell them to stop worrying. Poetry isn’t about handing you “a message.” I’m sorry, but it’s not. If it were, then the person who wrote it wouldn’t be writing a poem. There are so many better ways to get a point across!
Great poems do more than tell you what to do, or what to think. They are more intense—in a good way—than giving instruction or handing you a truism on a platter. A poem draws you, the reader, forward, into soulful activity. Into a dialogue of thought and feeling. The writer and the reader are connecting, are thinking toward one another.
To think toward one another, to think in the direction of another human, is vital. We need everything we can to help us do it.
Some of my favorite things said about poetry were by the poet Paul Celan, a Jewish-German poet born in Bukovina, who was about your age when the Nazis invaded. He saw awful suffering. Yet he resolved to “hold onto what is human,” as long as he was alive. He said poetry helped him do that. Celan speaks of a poem’s craft as “handiwork, a matter of hands . . . these hands must belong to one person, [that is] . . . a unique, mortal soul searching for its way with its voice and its dumbness . . . I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem.”
When Celan talks about this unique mortal soul searching for its own way, I think of the American poet Emily Dickinson. She is weird. A weird mind, a weird writer, and a weird thinker. For someone weird like me to read someone weird like her really helped—it acknowledged my existence. She treasured her solitude. That makes you think, in this day and age when working in groups and teams is so highly valued. She wasn’t a group person. She was often thinking of others when she wrote, but she wrote her poems in solitude.
And she was a homebody. She studied the world in the way she was able, by reading everything she could get her hands on, by thinking and thinking into poems—and making poems that somehow reach people. Her poems travel, across centuries, cultures, languages. She keeps speaking to others. Great poetry, like Dickinson’s—is a person’s voice: the voice of an individual. It can be no other.
At the same time, great poetry is a voice that speaks to others. Acknowledges them. In a speech in the 1960s, Paul Celan said the poem is “essentially . . . a letter in a bottle thrown out to sea with the . . . hope that it may somehow wash up somewhere, perhaps on a shoreline of the heart. Poems are en route; they are headed toward . . . toward something open . . . an approachable you, perhaps an approachable reality.”
The poem is headed toward you. It was crafted to travel. It might arrive where you are. Or it might not.
One poem doesn’t have to speak to all of you. You take a class with me, you won’t like all the poems we read. We’ll be lucky if you hit it off with one or two. But that’s OK. We have certain friends in real life, certain company we keep; we’ll like the voice, the company, of some writers more than others.
Notice I said earlier that great poems “speak to” another person. To speak to is different from to speak at. In order to speak to someone, you have to really acknowledge them. You can’t just shout. In other words, if you want to be heard, you have to listen.
This is where I think poetry starts to have current relevance, today when we’re all multi-tasking—splintering our attention every few seconds. To read poetry you have to be there, with the poem and its speaker. You have to make a space for the voice of that individual, and be open to it, attentive.
I remember a conversation some faculty were having about new technologies and teaching, and one of my colleagues said, “you know this is all great and interesting, but so much of what I have to teach the students to do is to sit and read a poem. And think about it. And read it again. There’s no technological magic that can take the place of that. It’s just reading and thinking and rereading and rethinking.” She’s so right.
The last day of a program for business managers at the Wharton School of Business included a session on poetry. Someone who attended the program was inspired to start reading poetry. Writing about it seven years later, he said, “Poetry is no substitute for courage or competence, but properly applied, it is a challenge to self-certainty, a spur to creative thinking, a rebuke to dogma and habit.” He suggests that spending time with poetry might make our legislators a little more human.
For one voice to be truly heard by another is a sort of miracle. The Nigerian poet Christopher Okigbo, killed during the Biafran war—you read his poems, he’s still travelling toward you. One human being, one voice, out of the darkness of history, to another.
And you can’t be passive. You have to come to that voice with openness. Allow it to be more than just a message or a slogan, allow it to be human. Make room for it, in your life, in yourself.
I like this paraphrase of Walter Benjamin: Attention is a form of prayer. Attention is a form of prayer. Think about that. To pay attention to another person. To pay attention to a work of art, to a poem, to a child. To your parent. To your friend. To someone you don’t know. To someone in need. To a whole community, an entire country.
It can start with one thing and get bigger. But be careful how quickly you go. The paying of attention can’t be done truly if attention is divided and splintered.
What you pay attention to will shape you, it will form you, it will in some ways determine who you are. Reading a poem is good practice for that. For paying attention not only to words and what words actually “say,” but to what’s unsaid; for a poem is also made up of what it doesn’t say, just as a person is. There’s a whole richness of communication around the words. That’s what poets try to get at.
But it takes attention, and effort, to listen, and to hear. It can take a lifetime, it can take centuries. It may be that—to paraphrase another poet—the most interesting poems keep their secrets the longest.
I think they reveal them slowly, like some of the most interesting people.
To return again to Paul Celan, he said, “Poems are gifts to the attentive.”
And I would say to you: Poetry is one gift to the attentive. There are other gifts. It’s up to us, the attentive, to receive.
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