Interviewer: Do you think of writing as a spiritual act at its core?
Marie Howe: I do, because it involves a wonderful contradiction, which is in order for it to happen you have to be there and you have to disappear. Both. You know, nothing feels as good as that… Something happening through you, but you’re attending it. There are few things in the world like that, but writing is pretty much a relief from the self—and yet the self has to be utterly there.
—From an interview at The Millions
IN HIS POEM “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Robert Frost’s speaker looks for a reason why, when two out-of-work lumberjacks approach him as he splits wood on a beautiful April day, he doesn’t give them the job. Part of him can freely acknowledge that he has “no right to play / With what [is] another man’s work for gain.” But another part of him has already been given over to the work itself, to the delight of swinging an ax on an early spring day in New England. Here’s Frost:
The time when most I loved my task
These two must make me love it more
By coming with what they came to ask.
You’d think I never had felt before
The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip on earth of outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.
The day has already given “loose to [his] soul,” freeing him to feel the bounty of a first New England spring day when “the sun was warm but the wind was chill” and every wheel-rut is a brook, gurgling with spring run-off. Lost in his work, in his own body, in the good weather, Frost is fully absorbed by the enjoyment of his activity. Consider those lush, rocking iambs as Frost lingers over the pleasure of “muscles rocking soft / and smooth and moist in vernal heat.” Thus, if he gives his work to the unemployed tramps, he will lose more than a few bucks. Yet, when the speaker finally gives his reason why he will send the unemployed tramps away and continue to split his own wood, he turns to a nobler explanation:
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
This nobler explanation is part truth, part rationalization. On the one hand, Frost wants us to see why he cannot part with his own enjoyment, even when others need the work for food. On the other hand, he wants us to acknowledge that the aim of living is indeed the union of our avocation and vocation. To put the matter a little differently, Frost’s poem creates the experience of those moments when we step outside linear time, when the rhythms of work connect with the rhythms of nature, and we live inside one of the inmost truths of religion—that there is an integral rightness to life. In that sense, our work is indeed for “mortal stakes,” because in those activities where we unite our avocation and vocation, we return once again to the lost Eden where work once expressed the creative will of creation. Work, that is, resumes its deep connection to play when our labor is not toil (even if it is hard) because all our energies are concentrated in the activity itself, and the “I” that too often sees itself toiling disappears.
As Aristotle knew, for our lives to be complete, there must be something that we desire to do for its own sake—something that is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. The revelation in Frost’s poem occurs when Frost suddenly feels the grip of his feet on the earth, the weight of the ax-head poised in the air, the fluid movement of his muscles, and the intimate connection between his work and the preciousness and precariousness of an April day in New England. Frost understands with his whole body the truth which is evident: that our labor can return, if only temporarily, the ease and unselfconsciousness we had before the Fall, when “love and need” were one.
Here’s that “wonderful contradiction” Marie Howe speaks of, for the speaker is both utterly there and not there, fully aware of the day, the sky and clouds, the bluebird nearby, the feel of his ax swinging and the sound of the oak splitting on the chopping block, but he has disappeared. In Howe’s words: “Something is happening through you, but you’re attending it.”
We all know too well how life often goes by without our seeing it. In Wallace Stevens’s poem “Man on the Dump,” the speaker acknowledges, “the dump is full of images”—full, that is, of the stale ways we look at the world until we no longer see it. What Stevens’s speaker wants is a “purifying change,” a way of seeing “as a man” and “not like an image of a man.” The poem ends in a barrage of questions, the man on the dump (in part, Stevens the poet, trying to cast off his poetic precursors in whose images he keeps seeing the world) casting aside those old images of truth and hoping to see the world freshly, to come near to that moment when we first heard of the truth: “The the.” Elsewhere, Stevens calls this moment “the first idea.” In a letter to Henry Church, he describes this “first idea” metaphorically, asking Church to imagine a painting that has been covered with the grime of years. That dirt and grime, Stevens explains, are all the filters through which we see the world. But if the painting were to undergo a cleaning, we would see it afresh, as if for the first time.
Stevens is the first to admit just how difficult such seeing is. But he knows, like Emerson and Thoreau before him, that we cannot understand the world by distancing ourselves from it or framing it in objective terms. To behold the world, we need, Stevens knows, to return to something we may have forgotten, or at best distorted: wonder. In their book Practicing Mortality, Christopher Dustin and Joanna Ziegler point out that “wonder is not just a subjective response to things. It is not just something we do. For the Greeks, things are (or are not) ‘wonders.’ We may be able to see this, or we may fail to see it, but the ‘wonder’ is something that stands before.”
The older we get, the farther away we seem from those deep responses to the world we once had as children. It is no accident that in Tolstoy’s great story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Ivan, opening himself at last to the possibility that he has not truly lived, begins to think of childhood as the one authentic time of his life. For him, and for most of us, living according to “propriety,” or living without truly realizing what life is, brings on the gathering weight of death. What Ivan Ilyich does not want to admit, even to himself, is that all his choices were dictated not by what he loved, but rather by what society prized. His experience of life has been secondhand, routine. His fear of death is truly a fear of never having lived. To live, or better perhaps, to come alive, in Tolstoy’s story requires our attending both to the world and to our own emotions.
So what does it mean to attend to this world and, at the same time, for the self that is doing the attending to disappear? When I say attend, I do not simply mean the physiological act of seeing with one’s eyes. If I hear Marie Howe and Robert Frost correctly, there is in such seeing a perception of the fullness that exists in each moment. The philosopher Martin Heidegger would say that such seeing means following “the path of a responding that examines as it listens.” Responding and examining: in other words, seeing always involves more than accurate scientific observation, though such observation is crucial. But seeing is impossible without love or reverence. That is, seeing is an exercise in overcoming one’s self, in attending to something quite particular other than oneself. Only the detachment of love helps us to see what there is to see as opposed to what we expect to see or are determined to find.
But why is it so hard to see? Why does a word like “behold” seem so nostalgic? I think there’s a convincing analysis of our contemporary situation in Heidegger’s 1955 essay “The Question Concerning Technology.” Heidegger’s central insight is that technology is not simply a means to an end, which, like any tool, is at our disposal. To him, that kind of thinking makes us “blind to the essence of technology” and to the fact that we “remain unfree and chained to technology whether we affirm or deny it.” The essay traces the reasons for this enchainment.
First, Heidegger looks at the Greek conception of techne or craft, from which the word “technology” arises. He argues that we have lost the ancient Greek connection to what techne originally meant. For Heidegger, techne is a “bringing forth” as opposed to a “bringing about.” That is, the craftsman does not cause something to happen so much as occasion its happening. Craft, then, is not simply the imposition of form on matter; it also allows form and matter to appear. Think of the way an architect uses stones, but does more than put them to use, allowing the material qualities of the stone, its patterns and textures, to appear. Or the way a gardener prepares the soil, sows the seeds, waters, and weeds so the plants will flourish, but understands that the germination of the seeds, their flowering and fruition, are not in the gardener’s hands.
The problem, then, is that this original relationship to techne has been lost. Modern technology is no longer a matter of “bringing forth” but rather of what Heidegger calls “challenging” or “setting upon.” In the modern technological view, the world we live in is no longer a source, something we work with to bring forth its inherent possibilities, but a resource at our disposal. While modern technology provides a greater supply of basic necessities (we can eat fruits and vegetables out of season, “stockpile” electricity to use when we want it, turn summer into winter with air conditioning), it also occludes our relationship to the world. Technology enchains us, in Heidegger’s view, because it takes away our sense that we still owe our lives to something we did not make.
When the world is at our disposal, Heidegger argues, it no longer matters in the same sense as it once did. It can only reveal itself as something to be utilized rather than as a source to which we owe a debt. Modern technology keeps us from seeing how everything is not within our control. The result for Heidegger is that “the impression comes to prevail that everything man encounters exists only insofar as it is his construct. This illusion gives rises in turn to one final delusion: It seems as though everywhere and always man encounters only himself.”
To encounter ourselves everywhere we go is, of course, to lose all sense of wonder. Perhaps wonder begins with paying attention to our experience of being alive. Consider the dizzying number of passages that read like notations in Thoreau’s Walden or his journals. Speaking of the ice leaving Walden Pond, Thoreau writes “In 1845, Walden was open on the 1st of April; in ’46, the 25th of March; in ’47, the 8th of April; in ’51, the 28th of March; in ’52, the 18th of April, in ’53, the 23rd of March; in ’54, about the 7th of April.” Writing of early May birds, Thoreau notes, “I saw a loon in the pond, and during the first week of the month, I heard the whip-poor-will, the brown thrasher, the veery, the wood pewee….” There are descriptions of the behavior of box turtles, seasonal temperature changes, the color variations in leaves, the croaks of bullfrogs.
I think the underlying assumption in all of these notations is that we owe the world our attention. Thoreau pays attention to each particular phenomenon. He is always dropping a thermometer into Walden Pond or taking its measurements, or, lying on his stomach, looking at ice bubbles. He was as good and passionate an observer as they come. His boast that, reawakened after death, he could tell you what day of the year it was, give or take a few days, is probably worth betting on.
Likewise, in Modern Painters, Ruskin devoted whole sections to rocks, water, and clouds, and he recommended to his students that they follow his lead and each morning, as a daily exercise, draw the clouds they found in the dawn sky. His cloud studies are meticulous renderings; Ruskin often notes the place, and often the time and wind’s direction. Once, at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford, I spent hours looking at his drawings; I was lost in and delighted by the scientific attention Ruskin gave to the most ordinary objects—weathered boards on the Old Bridge at Lucerne, strawberry leaves, an oak branch in winter, a closed and open rose, a feather from a kingfisher. Of course, there were the more famous architectural drawings of his trips to the Alps and Italy, but it was clear that Ruskin gave the same attention to a leaf as he did to a mountain range or a church. He attended to the particulars that make each thing distinct.
When I first started to write poems in college and graduate school, I wanted to write about the natural world, which has always been an important part of my life. But I realized that, despite knowing a few flowers and trees, I really didn’t know much at all. I made a plan. I’d fill a backpack with field guides, walk into the woods, and move forward only when I could name everything around me. I never got very far.
But I learned a few things. First, that just as when I taught, I needed to learn the names of the students in my class to establish, at the very least, their uniqueness, I also needed, as a kind of courtesy to the uniqueness of the flora and fauna just outside my door, to know the names of trees and birds and flowers.
Second, I learned that knowing the name of a bird or a tree was just that: knowing a name. As with my students, there was so much more. I learned quickly how much more study it would take to understand the bird’s behavior, its mating patterns, its various songs, what Hopkins called its “thisness.”
And third, I found myself thinking about how often my idea of what was real differed from what was actually there. Flowers that I thought I knew turned out to have more petals than I’d assumed, or the leaves were arranged alternately rather than symmetrically. Even when I thought I knew something well, it often turned out I had barely scratched the surface. Once, a biologist at the college where I taught, who’d heard I was a bird-watcher, asked me if I knew what bird sounded like zip, zip, zip, tseee. I quickly answered, “a warbler,” like some star pupil. She could barely hold back her laughter. Ever so politely, in that knife-like, understated academic manner, she asked, “yes, but what warbler?” I learned how hard it was to see and hear; I learned, too, that the seeing and hearing which I thought were a given (I had eyes and ears that worked), actually required discipline and practice. And something more.
While I knew from my interest in religion about the via negativa, the practice of “cleaning house” or negating all humanly constructed images of God in order to allow in the immanent energies of God, I began to see how “seeing” required the same kind of house cleaning. Thoreau once said, “I begin to see an object when I cease to understand it.” Thoreau refers here to the illusory power that knowledge can confer. When we think we understand something, our thinking often ends. But the world we live in is multilayered, dense, and has an amplitude which we can sense but never fully know. We cannot sum up the experience of being alive with a list of what we did from hour to hour. It’s a disquieting feeling, mostly: that there is another dimension to life which we feel, and perhaps even see and live at moments, but which for the most part remains in the background.
My contention here is that attention has something to do with a practiced look at this background. Again, I don’t mean to suggest that some curtain or veil is pulled back and the great ta-da of God is revealed; in fact, I mean quite the opposite—that attention is simply a loving look at what is. I think we come to know the world not by detaching ourselves from our felt experience, but by inhabiting our bodily experience as richly and wakefully as we can. In this manner, an act of attention involves a kind of paradox: as the Polish poet and Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz writes, “When a thing is truly seen, seen intensely, it remains with us forever and astonishes us, even though it would appear there is nothing astonishing about it.” For Milosz, to contemplate “tree or rock or a man” may bring us “to comprehend that it is, even though it might not have been.”
I began with a poem about swinging an ax; here’s one about a pitchfork. It’s by Seamus Heaney, a poet who attends as well as any writer I know. I want to consider both how well Heaney delineates the shape and feel of the pitchfork, and how he moves, as all poems must, from description to metaphor. The poem is from his wonderfully titled book Seeing Things. It opens with a two-line statement joining two unlikely words, implement and perfection: “Of all implements, the pitchfork was the one / That came near to an imagined perfection.” The writer’s task is set: how is the common pitchfork, an implement right for pitching hay, also one that stirs the speaker to imagine perfection? The poem then turns to delineating the pitchfork:
When he tightened his raised hand and aimed with it,
It felt like a javelin, accurate and light.
So whether he played the warrior or the athlete
Or worked in earnest in the chaff and sweat,
He loved its grain of tapering, dark-flecked ash
Grown satiny from its own natural polish.
Riveted steel, turned timber, burnish, grain,
Smoothness, straightness, roundness, length and sheen.
Sweat-cured, sharpened, balanced, tested, fitted.
The springiness, the clip and dart of it.
The pitchfork as a Platonic perfect form. How does Heaney get away with such a claim?—by attending to the pitchfork, by letting the pitchfork be in all the particulars of its ash-flecked grain, its naturally patinaed, sweat-cured, lathe-turned shaft; by letting the reader feel the light heft of it, the springy strength of its tines, and how, holding it, one feels both its purpose—the lifting and tossing of hay—and how it would fly from the hand, like a javelin, if thrown. This is an implement that joins work and play. It lets the imagination fly:
And then when he thought of probes that reached the farthest,
He would see the shaft of a pitchfork sailing past
Evenly, imperturbably through space,
Its prongs starlit and absolutely soundless—
But has learned at last to follow that simple lead
Past its own aim, out to an other side
Where perfection—or nearness to it—is imagined
Not in the aiming but the opening hand.
Those springy tines have become space probes, the pitchfork now hurling soundlessly through space. The simple act of attending to the pitchfork and its javelin-like flight has led Heaney beyond himself, towards an “other side” where perfection might be imagined, but cannot be had, especially by “aiming” to have it. We can only attend and let go; we can only be here with the pitchfork and, with imagination, “there” where it flies to, beyond the self.
I think the best art always involves such loving attention to what is before us. I would argue that art is not about the will; that making art should push aside the ego and desires of the artist and that this pushing aside can only take place in the absorption of the artist by what is actual. To maintain the integrity of the work itself is the artist’s form of love since, as soon as the artist tries to please, the good of the thing that is being made will be compromised. Great art, then, isn’t a statement of truth, nor is it aimed at the good of humanity, because it does not try to tell us anything; rather, if the artist fixes his or her attention on something real, what is made will be beautiful “because it will be transparent to what is always present in the real, that is the overflow of presence which generates joy.” This last statement is from a wonderful book-length meditation called Grace and Necessity by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, which informs much of what I have just said here.
Williams’s book is a reflection on the aesthetic theory of the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. What I love about this little book is the way it revolves around two phrases of Maritain’s about “things being more than they are” or “not only what they are.” I want to end by briefly exploring these phrases. The artist in Williams’s book is one who “perceives the material of the world—visible things, patterns of sound, texture, as offering more than can appear in one moment of encounter.” Think of how artists have tried to solve that dilemma—Monet’s many views of the same haystacks in different light and seasons; or the multiple perspectives of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury; or the montage of voices in Eliot’s The Waste Land. Everyone who has ever painted or written a word wants his or her work to embrace everything at once—Walmart and a bluebird, grocery shopping and ecstasy. And everyone fails.
But, while that kind of failure is inevitable, what matters for Williams and Maritain is the degree to which an artist is attentive or obedient to what is being encountered. To Rowan Williams that attention is made manifest in a work of art by the degree to which, as Williams says, it has “dimension” outside of its relation to the artist. He writes, “There is the sense that the world ‘gives’ itself to be understood in the very moment when we realize that describing it simply in terms of how it relates to me, let alone serves my interest, is an inadequate or actively untruthful perspective.”
For me, this line of thought brings back a passage from Gilead in which John Ames, the minister narrator, remarks, “this is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.” Though he is no philosopher, his homespun language may catch what I’ve been after best of all. Recalling a young couple on a stroll after a rain, he thinks about the way the sun “just shone” and the tree “just glistened” and the water “just poured” that day, calling attention to the word “just.” He concludes that people use the word “just” in that manner when they “want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself.” For me, attention in general, and the artist’s loving attention more specifically, is always a commitment to that excess, that sense of how the world we live in exceeds mere functionality or need. In such moments, we attend entirely to something else, disappearing in the process.