Audio

The Poet is Distracted

November 28, 2017

Cindy Kats:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

 

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

 

Curtis Fox: That’s the beginning of a sonnet by William Wordsworth, and this is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, the poet is distracted. William Wordsworth wrote “The World Is Too Much With Us” at the very beginning of the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution was just getting started. His complaint was that busy world was destroying our ability to commune with nature. Let’s hear a bit more of that poem.

 

Cindy Kats:

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not.

 

Curtis Fox: That’s Wordsworth read by Cindy Kats, who’s in the studio with me. Just imagine what Wordsworth would say about TV, twitter, internet, porn, the 24 hour news cycle and other distractions of 21st century life. Yet amid our hectic lives, poetry somehow persists. The November 2017 issue there’s an essay that argues that distraction may be actually at the heart of poetry. Take that, Wordsworth. The author of that essay is Matthew Bevis who joins me now from Keble College at Oxford. Hi Matthew.

 

Matthew Bevis: Hi, hi.

 

Curtis Fox: So Matthew, you said in your essay that you were writing the essay itself as a distraction from the book you were supposed to be writing; if only my distractions were so productive. Give us the gist of your argument, what does distraction have to do with poetry? For a lot of people that’s counter intuitive.

 

Matthew Bevis: Yeah, I think so. Leading on from the Wordsworth sonnet that’s just been read, that sonnet is actually a useful way in because that sonnet was something that Sorbello picked up on in a lecture and said this was his first introduction to the subject of distraction. He said “Wordsworth warning was not lost on me”. I started from a more counterintuitive position which was to argue that distraction was the kind of thing that poetry might be, both as a compositional method and also as something that’s passed on to us as readers. Wordsworth is someone I would recruit as an ally here.

 

Curtis Fox: You said the “Prelude”, his great long poem, was a distraction from some philosophical work he was writing in the time.

 

Matthew Bevis: Exactly, and he says in the Prelude “the mood in which this poem has begun” he describes as distraction and intense desire. There’s a sort of counter argument against the Wordsworth sonnet from Wordsworth himself, that distraction could be a source of poetic thought. One of the things I was trying to work through in the essay is whether distraction and attention are always opposites. When we think about someone like Ashbery, when he talks about distraction occurring to him it’s not quite that he’s not attending, he’s just letting one thought collide with another. I’m not suggesting that we don’t pay attention to what we’re reading, but there might be a way of thinking about being more distractedly attentive to something.

 

Curtis Fox: You mention Ashbery, and much of your essay is concerned with I guess you would call him the greatest poet of distraction, the late John Ashbery. You quote one of his poems, “What is Poetry”. It’s hard to say what any Ashbery poem is about, but this one is pretty clear, it’s about the writing of poetry itself. Let’s hear it. As I mentioned, our reader is here with me in Brooklyn. It’s Cindy Kats. Cindy?

 

Cindy Kats:

The medieval town, with frieze

Of boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow

That came when we wanted it to snow?

Beautiful images? Trying to avoid

Ideas, as in this poem? But we

Go back to them as to a wife, leaving

The mistress we desire? Now they

Will have to believe it

As we believed it. In school

All the thought got combed out:

What was left was like a field.

Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.

Now open them on a thin vertical path.

It might give us--what?--some flowers soon?

 

Curtis Fox: Thanks Cindy. So Matthew, I have a little confession to make. Whenever I’m reading or listening to an Ashbery poem, I”m often distracted by my own thoughts. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Matthew Bevis: I think it’s a good thing. I think Ashbery would think of it as a good thing, and Ashbery would be nodding in the sense that he says he writes best when he’s distracted. He’s often said things like he writes with the television on, or finds lines come to him when he’s not quite paying attention to what he thought he was doing. Again that fits with this possibility of thinking about where the poems come from as opposed to composition being passed on to the reader, the quest that it creates in you the mood that spurred into being.

 

Curtis Fox: I want to complicate my confession a little bit and say that sometimes when I’m reading the Ashbery poems I start to drift along with my own thoughts and I find them more interesting than the Ashbery poem itself. I’m kidding —


Matthew Bevis: I think he’d be okay with that to! One of the things I tried to suggest in the essay is I actually think we’re distracted all the time when we’re reading, when we think we’re paying attention. Just to give one example of this, if you come across Ashbery’s line, “the light on the water that time”, what is it that you think you’re seeing? You’re certainly not seeing the light he saw on the water and is remembering, you’re superimposing your own experience or an image from wherever you’ve got it onto the line. In other words, you’re partly being distracted. You’re wandering into your own experience by the platform the poem gave you to do that.

 

Curtis Fox: And that’s very intentional on Ashbery’s part. He’s inviting you to participate in his poem in that way.


Matthew Bevis: Yes, I think that’s absolutely right. He often talks about this in interview, the feeling that we all interpret poetry according to what we’ve experienced. When he was asked about individual images in this poem, he described in quite specific detail what he meant about the medieval town and the snow and the boy scouts, but he followed that up that he doesn’t want to police responses to those images, and in fact wants those images to have a life of their own that he couldn’t predict in the mind eye of the reader.


Curtis Fox: Matthew, I asked you to pick another poem from the website, one that you didn’t mention in the essay that speaks to this issue of distraction in poetry. You chose a poem from Steven Dunn called “Always something more beautiful”. It’s a very different poem from a very different poet. Can you set it up for us before we hear it?

Matthew Bevis: One poem that might be asked in the poem as it’s heard is what is being described here? Is it again the process of a poem coming into being? Is it a dream he once had? Is it both? Is it something else?

Curtis Fox: Yeah, it’s hard to know. But it’s clear it’s about a foot race, the speaker is running a race. That’s the hard information that might be helpful to note before we go onto this poem.

 

Matthew Bevis: Yeah.

 

Curtis Fox: Okay, here’s Cindy Kats again reading “Always Something More Beautiful” by Steven Dunn.

 

Cindy Kats:

This time I came to the starting place

with my best running shoes, and pure speed

held back for the finish, came with only love

of the clock and the underfooting

and the other runners. Each of us would

be testing excellence and endurance

 

in the other, though in the past I’d often

veer off to follow some feral distraction

down a side path, allowing myself

to pursue something odd or beautiful,

becoming acquainted with a few of the ways

not to blame myself for failing to succeed.

 

I had come to believe what’s beautiful

had more to do with daring

to take yourself seriously, to stay

the course, whatever the course might be.

The person in front seemed ready to fade,

his long, graceful stride shortening

 

as I came up along his side. I was sure now

I’d at least exceed my best time.

But the man with the famous final kick

already had begun his move. Beautiful, I heard

a spectator say, as if something inevitable

about to come from nowhere was again on its way.

 

Curtis Fox: Thanks Cindy. That was Steven Dunn’s poem “Always Something More Beautiful” which was first published in the June 2015 issue of Poetry Magazine. So Matthew, this is a wonderful poem. It’s hard not to think it’s death itself catching up with the runner at the end of the poem. I’m not sure if hat was the author’s intention or not. But if death was the finish line of this race we’re running, you could see why he wants to go off course now and again as he does earlier in the poem.


Matthew Bevis: I like that, as though it would be rather than a poem that’s trying to avoid ideas as Ashbery put it, it’d be trying to avoid it’s own progress or it’s own end point. I think that’s right, although I’d say again the ending here is not quite an end, it’s ushering in another kind of beginning too. As if something inevitable about to come from nowhere was again on it’s way. On it’s way can be read as just starting up or on your way out.

 

Curtis Fox: It doesn’t say what it is, but there’s something ominous happening at the end. I interpreted it as doubt, I read it as doubt, but you could read it as another distraction.


Matthew Bevis: As an invitation to go on beginning again. It’s funny because when I heard this poem the first time the image I couldn’t get out of my head was something like Alice in Wonderland running and finding herself in the same place. Yeah, it’s true, invites distraction as it’s happening to you.

 

Curtis Fox: There’s one part in the poem where he talks about distraction. Cindy, can you read that part?

 

Cindy Kats:

in the past I’d often

veer off to follow some feral distraction

down a side path, allowing myself

to pursue something odd or beautiful,

becoming acquainted with a few of the ways

not to blame myself for failing to succeed.

 

Curtis Fox: This is a wildly odd section, because the speaker allows himself to be distracted by something beautiful and that’s a good thing in our minds I think. But he’s also says he’s making excuses for failure, it’s a very strange equivalence between the two things.

 

Matthew Bevis: It’s a strange moment also because the poem is trying to tell us that he’s putting the past behind him, he’s no longer going to get distracted and he’s going to treat the race like a race, yet this particular moment in the poem feels like a distraction. It needn’t be here. It’s as though the poem is not quite doing what it’s saying.


Curtis Fox: It’s not running the race.

Matthew Bevis: It has again I think a type of humor, not unlike Ashbery, about suggesting it’s still got a sort of subterranean allegiance to the distracted and the distractible in itself, even as it says I’m putting that behind me.


Curtis Fox: You can’t put the past behind you I guess the poem is saying, there’s no way you can do it.

 

Matthew Bevis: That’s actually signaled in little details. Look at the first four words; “This time I came”. If that was wholly passed, you would’ve written “That time I came”. But this time for a second restarts. There’s a blurring of past and present. It’s a colloquial phrase but it blends. The poem is half distracted already, it doesn’t know where it is.

 

Curtis Fox: It’s also a mockery of will power. This time I came to the start place with my best shoes, and he’s really ready to race. He’s saving his best for last and he wants to get his best time. There’s some sort of mockery about how our will power isn’t going to serve us ultimately very well. Did you sense that?

Matthew Bevis: I think that’s right. Again, we tend to think of the capillaries of attention tied up with will, volition, we’re going to make an effort to pay attention. We tend to think of distraction as something we’re subject to, where we lapse from our best interests. There are moments in this poem, even the phrase like “Allowing myself to pursue something”. Is weird. It’s not quite agency and it’s not quite the opposite. To allow yourself to pursue something is almost not to decide to do it. Or “I had come to believe”, do you mean you actively decided to do that? I think you’re right, the idea that the poem is interested in what would happen if you gave up on will or allowed will power to be shallowed by other kinds of things. This is perhaps why it feels to me like a dream. Dreams are something we make, but we really they get made despite us.

 

Curtis Fox: Come to think about it, dreams are one distraction inside a distraction inside a distraction. They unfold like trap doors, one thing happening after another that we have no control over. That’s a very good way to thin about this poem.

 

Matthew Bevis: I think that would work also with Ashbery’s sense of what distraction is. The dream or the dreamer is the person you might really want to be if you gave yourself time off from policing yourself. It’s a kind of place you’re most distracted.

 

Curtis Fox: Let’s bring it back to our present circumstances. We have more tools for distraction than humanity has ever had in it’s history, and many of us feel besieged by media and business and so on. Extrapolate a little for us about how our attitude might be different to these challenges of distraction.


Matthew Bevis: I’d actually say in our culture generally perhaps despite all these distractions or because of them, we’re still hard on distraction, and we pay huge amount of lip service to the idea of attention as unequivocal good. Most of our … We live in a capitalist culture, you can hear it in our vocabulary. We pay or invest attention, we spend time, we take stock. In my article I mentioned a book that was published last year called The Distracted Mind. It suggested we should get rid of distraction and become more efficient, more able to function in classrooms and in the workplace as the authors put it. I’m not sure this is an answer to your question, but it seems to me that distraction seems to get a bad wrap. We’re made to feel guilty about our distractions, and I wanted to just play devil’s advocate or something more for the idea that distraction and our susceptibility to it might not always make us dupes or fools but might be a kind of resistance to what’s become an attention economy.

Curtis Fox: Back to twitter everybody (LAUGHING). Matthew, there’s no way we could do justice to your essay in this podcast which is really rich and really fun to read. I encourage everyone to go to poetryfoundation.org or pick up a copy of the November issue. Thanks very much, Matthew.

 

Matthew Bevis: Thank you, my pleasure.

Curtis Fox: And thanks to Cindy Kats. We love getting emails with your comments and suggestions, email us at podcast@poetryfoundation.org or write a review in Apple Podcasts. Please link to the podcast on social media. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. I'm Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.

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