In Search of Distraction
To be with the one I love and to think of something else:
this is how I have my best ideas.
— Roland Barthes
We are used to hearing that attention is good for us, and that bad things happen when we are inattentive. On the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Rebecca Solnit wrote of a hypercapitalist culture that had helped to create a “pandemic attention deficit disorder.” But the culture’s vocabularies for attentiveness are not exactly uncapitalist (we pay or invest attention, spend time, take stock). In The Attention Economy, Thomas Davenport and John Beck sought to counteract “organizational ADD” in corporations, and it seems reasonable to assume that the $100,000 advertising campaign that drew attention to their book was, as it were, “good for business.” This particular economy shows no signs of shrinking; last year MIT Press published The Distracted Mind, in which the coauthors (a psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist) offered strategies for changing our behavior so that we might function more successfully “in our personal lives, on the road, in classrooms, and” — last but not least — “in the workplace.” The book concluded with the hope that “a neuro cross-fit training” program might soon be developed to minimize distractions.
People have been in training for attention for some time. “Attend upon the Lord without distraction,” Paul advised in Corinthians. Darwin would later stress the importance of attendances less spiritual and altogether more adaptive. “Hardly any faculty is more important for the intellectual progress of man than the power of Attention,” he observed in The Descent of Man, “animals clearly manifest this power, as when a cat watches by a hole and prepares to spring on its prey.” This watchfulness is certainly useful, but it may need to be watched; Darwin adds that “wild animals sometimes become so absorbed when thus engaged, that they may be easily approached.” So perhaps it’s hazardous for me to pay too much attention; as an easily-approached attender, I may myself become prey. And there still appears to be some confusion about what kind of attention is the right kind; computer games have often been seen as lamentable distractions, and as contributing factors to poor attention levels, but that was before researchers began lauding the superior attentional capacity of those who played them.
These complications notwithstanding, distraction has tended to get bad press. F.R. Leavis’s concern in Mass Civilization and Minority Culture about “a vast and increasing inattention” is paradigmatic: attention marks a golden age (people were always less distracted in the past). Sixty years after Leavis spoke out, Saul Bellow delivered a lecture entitled “The Distracted Public” in which he lamented the rise of newspapers, TV, radio, channel hopping, and so on, before insisting that the poet’s role was to woo his audience from distractedness. The first poet he quoted, the one he’d memorized as a child and who seemed to him to epitomize the artist who spoke for the value of concentration, was Wordsworth. “‘The World Is Too Much with Us,’ may, for all I know, have been my introduction to the subject of distraction,” Bellow said, “Wordsworth’s warning ... was not lost on me.” Something was lost, though, by reading poetry in this attention-driven manner. The word “distraction” appears only once in Wordsworth’s corpus — toward the end of his greatest poem. The Prelude was itself a distraction from the philosophical work he was meant to be writing, and in Book XIII he calls to mind “The mood in which this Poem was begun, / ... / ... that distraction and intense desire.” The linking of distraction to intense desire doesn’t suggest the poet is all that sorry for having succumbed to it. The mood sounds more like a catalyst than a curse.
Thomas De Quincey recalled an occasion when he and Wordsworth were waiting for the mail coach. At intervals, his friend lay down on the road and pressed his ear to the ground. Once, as he was “rising from this effort,” he caught sight of a something in the sky, stared at it for a minute or so, and then said:
I have remarked, from my earliest days, that if, under any circumstances, the attention is energetically braced up to an act of steady observation, or of steady expectation, then, if this intense condition of vigilance should suddenly relax, at that moment any beautiful, any impressive visual object, or collection of objects, falling upon the eye, is carried to the heart with a power not known under other circumstances. Just now, my ear was placed upon the stretch, in order to catch any sound of wheels that might come down upon the lake of Wythburn from the Keswick road: at the very instant when I raised my head from the ground, in final abandonment of hope for this night, at the very instant when the organs of attention were all at once relaxing from their tension, the bright star hanging in the air above those outlines of massy blackness, fell suddenly upon my eye, and penetrated my capacity of apprehension with a pathos and a sense of the Infinite, that would not have arrested me under other circumstances.
Distraction need not simply be another name for attention shifted (“I was looking at this, then I looked at that”). Attention is a form of “tension,” but the relaxation here — both that which creates the condition for the new perception and that which follows from it — is primarily conceived as passive (objects fall “upon the eye, are “carried to the heart”). The sense of one’s capacity of apprehension being “penetrated” is also strange; it’s as though, in a certain state of distractedness, our capacities are not our own. Yet this state isn’t conceived as deficit or disorder; although it arrives as Wordsworth has undertaken “final abandonment of hope,” it signals an advent. And even as he becomes distractedly absorbed by the bright star, the star itself is already luring him into a feeling for something other than itself, igniting “a sense of the Infinite.” The numinous turns nebulous. The unfocused seems to include — or to inspire — a new sense of freedom.
Whatever this freedom is, I would like a little of it. More than a little. I’m writing this sentence as a distraction from a book about poetry that I’m meant to be writing, but also with a hunch that the book may get written via the distraction, that something in the book needs to get worked out — or worked through — by my not attending to it. Or perhaps the book was really always a distraction, and wherever the non-book resides is the place I’m supposed to be. “I like to put things up around my bed all the time,” Diane Arbus once noted,
pictures of mine that I like and other things and I change it every month or so. There’s some funny subliminal thing that happens. It isn’t just looking at it. It’s looking at it when you’re not looking at it. It really begins to act on you in a funny way.
That’s a dream — or daydream — of the tangential as a route to the heedlessly thoughtful, which is a dream I want to have.
Wordsworth was getting distracted in an age that was just beginning to valorize economies of attention, an age that instigated the very idea of attention as a command that brooked no opposition, an age we still inhabit. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, The Prelude was begun in the same decade that “attention” was first transcribed as: “A cautionary word used as a preparative to any particular exercise or manœuvre ... to come to attention: to assume a prepared military attitude; so to stand at attention.” Just a few months before that cautionary word was uttered, Wordsworth was writing to a friend confessing (or boasting) that the only things he’d read in “modern literature” were “two or three papers of the Spectator” and “three volumes of Tristram Shandy” (“I rather think that my gaiety increases with my ignorance,” he added). So the only writing he’d been attending to — and, even then, not wholly attending to — was the digressive, rambling form of the modern essay, and a work that had good claim to be the most poetically distracted piece of prose fiction yet written in English. The young man was already sensing that there might be something debilitating about the call to pay attention continually, or in too sustained a manner.
The founding moment of Laurence Sterne’s novel — its first sentence, along with what happens in its first chapter — is itself a radiantly-compressed meditation on the odd alliances between distraction and intense desire. “To be with the one I love and to think of something else: this is how I have my best ideas”; this is exactly what Tristram’s mother does when she gets distracted while she and her husband are having sex. “I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me,” the novel begins. Alluding to the commonplace idea that conditions at the precise moment of conception determined both the character and the future of the child, Tristram tells the reader what happened in this particular case:
Pray, my dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock? — Good G — ! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time, — Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question? Pray, what was your father saying? — Nothing.
To mention the clock at such a delicate moment is to neglect the art of good timing, and bodies don’t always run like clockwork when subject to such distractions. Yet the creation of this world — the fictional one in which Tristram comes to life as he watches his parents’ momentary inattention to the matter at hand — is the best of all possible worlds. I don’t wish Tristram Shandy any different, and whenever I reread it I sense that both the novel’s and the character’s ensuing distractions are being offered to me not merely as predicaments, but as pleasures, pleasures that may contain secrets about how to live. When Barthes notes that he has his best ideas when, amid loving company, he thinks of “something else,” he is not necessarily saying that the best idea is itself the “something else.” That idea may come as an unbidden, unpredictable extra gift after distraction has occurred. It could be said that Tristram is his parents’ best idea — partly because they only have some idea of what they’re doing when they find leisure to get so delectably distracted.
The opening of Tristram Shandy can be read as a parable of creation in another sense, a parable about the creativity that may be fostered by a certain form of distracted receptivity in readers too. A reader, not just a character, is being conceived here, for “Pray, what was your father saying?” is the birth of my voice in this novel; I am ushered into existence as a potentially distracted creature myself. Rereading this primal scene, allowing myself to become distracted from Tristram’s concern about the whole messy episode (his concern, I think, is primarily what he’d like me to attend to), I start to ponder whether his mother’s asking of such a question at such a time really suggests a lack of intimacy (a couple merely, mechanically, going through the motions), or whether it implies that the intimacy is so capacious (so playfully erotic, even) that it’s strong enough to admit the fact of distraction — strong enough, in fact, to allow distraction into the bedroom.
After pondering that possibility, I start to wander into speculations about the various tones of voice in which both the father’s and the mother’s questions might have been ventured, and then I start to daydream about the ways in which Tristram came to learn about this encounter. Was it related to him as a tender joke, perhaps, or offered to him as some kind of exculpation, an invitation to stop worrying and to embrace distraction? Writers, like parents, may often drive us to distraction in the fullest sense of that term, from which it doesn’t necessarily follow that we don’t need to be driven there. In his Encyclopédie, Diderot wrote:
Distraction arises from an excellent quality of the understanding, which allows the ideas to strike against, or reawaken one another. It is the opposite of that stupor of attention, which merely rests on, or recycles, the same idea.
It’s pleasing to think of a quality inside “understanding” that does something other than merely understand, pleasing to be reminded that understanding may also include the ability to allow something. Diderot’s definition of “distraction” suggests that, rather than resting on our attentive laurels, we might consider what our attention is missing out on.
Distraction clearly has a long history, but it appears to take on new life in twentieth-century society and culture (the century opened with the word “distractability” making its way into the language). The values and vagaries of this condition could be told as a short story — or as a series of fragments — about one poet’s favorite distractions, and the protagonist I have in mind is the most distracted poet I can think of, the one I often turn to when in search of distraction — especially in the last few months. “Let’s pay attention,” John Ashbery wrote in his last collection. Yes, let’s. And let’s also be distracted by our feeling that his suggestion contains mischief. The poet noted in an interview that “I am interested in, or distracted by, a lot of things.” “A lot” is an understatement. Still, a selective, lyrical sampling of these things — things that, even when not poems, reminded him of poems — may be revealing. Which is to say: although Ashbery’s distractions were very much his own, I think they can be read as representative of the kind of distraction that poetry is.
His Selected Prose begins with a tribute to Gertrude Stein. Coincidentally — or, perhaps, not coincidentally — Stein’s first publication was a coauthored article in the Psychological Review in 1896 on “Normal Motor Automatism,” followed by a paper on “Cultivated Motor Automatism” in the same journal a couple of years later. Based on experiments conducted at Harvard Psychological Laboratory, she sought to theorize the operations of the brain and body by studying what arises “whenever the attention is sufficiently distracted.” One experiment, entitled “Automatic Reading,” involved the subject reading from a book in a low voice while another person read him a story from another book. “If he does not go insane during the first few trials,” Stein observes, the subject can concentrate his attention on the story he’s listening to even as he goes on reading aloud from the page in front him. The sound of the subject’s own voice, she explains, “bears about the same relation to his consciousness as the murmur of the stream, beside which one reads on a summer day — a general background of sound, not belonging to anything in particular.” In other experiments, Stein found that subjects often “learnt best” when attention was strongly distracted. Throughout the articles one senses both her desire to draw attention to productive forms of inattention, and her wish to narrow the gap between the distractible suggestibility of “hysterical subjects” and those who “as far as we know stand as representatives of the perfectly normal” (“as far as we know” is a nice touch, given that what escapes attention is the very subject of her investigations).
Stein’s first paper was published a few years after Max Nordau’s Degeneration, in which he had criticized both “hysterical” and “artistic” temperaments for their “morbid susceptibility to suggestion”: “the degenerate is not in a condition to fix his attention long, or indeed at all, on any subject.” By resisting these emphases, Stein was following the lead of the language she was thinking and working in, for “distraction” has always been a word that muddies distinctions between sanity and insanity, between conceptions of the acceptable and the objectionable, according to the OED:
3. a. The fact or condition of being drawn or pulled (physically or mentally) in different directions by conflicting forces or emotions ...
4. Violent perturbation or disturbance of mind or feelings, approaching to temporary madness. To distraction: to a degree which exemplifies or amounts to this ...
5. Mental derangement; craziness, madness, insanity.
Definition 3. a. is something everyone feels from time to time, or even most of the time. Definition 4 also sounds eerily familiar when the OED’s concessions are taken into account (“approaching to” and “temporary”). Perhaps, then, definition 5 isn’t so unusual in allegedly healthy subjects, shouldn’t be so firmly sealed off from the definitions of what it might mean to be healthy. It could be unreasonable not to become distracted in certain situations.
Ashbery wasn’t being critical when he suggested that, while reading Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation, you have the feeling of “things happening ... though it would be difficult to say precisely what is going on.” If you do not go insane during the first few trials, the difficulty may lessen — or you may cease to care. The poet’s testimony sounds a little like that of one of Stein’s experimental subjects, a subject who, although partly conscious of the confused, stream-like murmur of his voice as he reads out the page before him, is not quite conscious of what that voice is saying or meaning. He’s amazed that he can do this, amazed at the feeling it gives him and at what else that feeling may portend. And, certainly, Stein’s poem is forgiving of distractibility; or, rather, willing to see distractibility itself as a peculiar mode of meditation: “I have lost the thread of my discourse / This is it it makes no difference if we find it.” Such confessions provide consolation and provocation: losing things — threads, meanings, attention — is no great loss, yet it’s hard not to feel that some kind of challenge is being issued (the shift from “I” to “we” may suggest that readers are being enlisted as accomplices in the poem’s activity, not merely eavesdropping on it). To Ashbery’s claim that Stein’s work “seems to obey some rhythmic impulse at the heart of all happening,” it could be added that one name for that impulse is distraction, and that obedience to the impulse — while writing or reading — could lead to a different sense of what makes a difference. “One feels that if one were to close the book one would shortly re-encounter the Stanzas in life, under another guise.”
Attention attenuates. “The more you look the less you will observe,” Thoreau confided in his journal, “I have the habit of attention to such excess that my senses get no rest.... What I need is not to look at all, but a true sauntering of the eye.” Something akin to this sauntering is required for those Magic Eye stereograms: we look through or around the pattern, not at it, in order to coax the image into view. And, often, when a word is on the tip of our tongue, it’s only by distracting ourselves that we help it to arrive. Distraction nurtures other kinds of arrival too. “My best writing,” Ashbery once remarked, “gets done when I’m being distracted by people who are calling me or errands that I have to do.” Like Stein, he liked to compose in the presence of distracting noises (he sometimes wrote while watching TV, or listening to music), and a diary entry from his early teenage years reads: “I got a painful scratch on the writer (pardon, listening to the radio) I mean scratch on the finger.” The slip is felicitous because in certain states of distraction the finger may become the writer. This peculiar state of being sheds some light on Ashbery’s fondness for this exchange from Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus:
judge: What do you do?orpheus: I’m a poet.judge: What does that mean?orpheus: It’s to write and not be a writer.
That’s a version of distraction: to be beside yourself in writing. Paul North has observed that one thing we can’t truly say is: “I am distracted.” Distraction doesn’t have a present tense; “I go away, and return,” he remarks, “yet nothing seems to have come between these moments — in which I was not.” We only know our distractedness belatedly, as a paradise or as a perplexity lost. Distraction is a time between times, a time in which we become momentarily subject to the non-thought inside thought. And this is the time — or one of the times — of poetry. Attention can be helpful later on as part of the process of revision, but for vision itself poets stand in need of distraction.
The need is felt because attention is not always unforeseen enough. One of Ashbery’s poems speaks of “diminished strength from paying too close attention,” and such focus can become a slovenly habit of accuracy: “there’s so much work to do,” he writes elsewhere, “so many puzzles to ignore.” Attention is a selection, a suppression, an ignoring, an ignorance. This is why Ashbery often praised those artworks that bespeak “the importance of attentiveness, and of the importance of abandoning it at certain times in the larger interests of the work.” In some guises, attentiveness can be a way of knowing — or of claiming to know — what you’re looking for as well as what you’re looking at. For Ashbery, in certain moods, this isn’t really looking. He is drawn instead to those poets who appear to have concentrated hard enough to come out on the other side of concentration. While reading Marianne Moore, he said, “you become aware that she is no longer addressing an ibis, or even you, the reader; for the last minute she has been gazing absently at something terribly important just over your left ear.” Terribly important, no doubt, yet she is still gazing absently (not, say, “gazing intently”). Attention — and the intention that so often goes with it — seems to have ushered in its own undoing.
Having interviewed Ashbery for the Paris Review, Peter Stitt remarked that throughout the conversation he gave “the impression of distraction, as though he wasn’t quite sure just what was going on or what his role in proceedings might be.” I suspect that the interviewee would have warmed to this association of distraction with uncertainty, and Stitt’s phrasing houses an additional confusion: he gave “the impression of distraction.” Like a sort of mild-mannered Hamlet, the poet has “distraction in his aspect,” but the viewer can’t be sure whether he’s really distracted or not — can’t even be sure, perhaps, what distraction is, or can’t reliably tell it apart from attention. Another way to put this would be to postulate that distraction is attention’s unconscious; it’s the static, or buzz, or background noise to which we’re so habituated when thinking that we’ve forgotten it’s there. Distraction is that which we bear in mind. Emily Dickinson once asked: “Is it oblivion or absorption when things pass from our minds?” Ashbery was enjoying, without answering, that question when he wrote: “I never think about it / Unless I think about it all the time.”
From this perspective, in an effort to concentrate on things, we suppress our distractibility, but the distractions are there nonetheless — not simply preying on our attentiveness, but permeating it. Attention could be conceived as the sublimation of distraction, not its opposite. Recalling the first time Jane Freilicher invited him to her apartment, Ashbery wrote: “I noticed a few small paintings lying around. ‘Noticed’ is perhaps too strong a word; I was only marginally aware of them, though I found that they did stick in my memory.” They stick precisely because he was only marginally aware of them; they escape his notice, but he notices them escape. James Longenbach has observed that “Ashbery makes us deeply aware of what we must ignore in order to make sense of his poems.” To become aware of what we are ignoring is to become dividedly attentive, and to become willing to make other things beside — or alongside — sense. In Flow Chart, Ashbery considered what it would be “to take full possession of one’s unawareness.” Full possession is a tall order (our unawareness is likely to be less unaware once we’ve got hold of it), but can we imagine an artwork that, through its very depiction and embodiment of distraction, would encourage a vision of the state not so much as a depletion or deprivation, but as a cherished deviancy, or as a kind of romance? What would this artwork look like?
“How wonderful it would be,” Ashbery once wrote, “if a painter could unite the inexhaustibility of poetry with the concreteness of painting. Kitaj, I think, comes closer than any other contemporary.” His favorite work by R.B. Kitaj was Study for the World’s Body — a study, among other things, of distraction.
The couple seem to have been disturbed. Ashbery comments:
Perhaps there is danger; perhaps it was only a creak in the floorboards. The characters of both are sharply indicated — these are specific people, not allegorical lovers: the man’s nose is long and pointed, yet his air of intellectual alertness renders him almost handsome. The woman’s face is perhaps excessively round and broad, but her expression of delicate apprehension is beautiful too. They are an unforgettable modern couple — sophisticated to the point of paranoia, perhaps, but able to deal with the world which made them turn out this way; more than a match no doubt for the unnamed thing that has just entered their lives, yet vulnerable and touching, almost pathetic, in their strength. Beautiful because exemplary.... Such is Kitaj, the chronicler not of our “strange moment” but of how it feels to be living in it.
The strange moment of Kitaj’s picture is based on a still from one of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s lesser-known films, The Bride of Glomdal.
The film tells the tale of two lovers separated by social standing (the boy is from the wrong side of the river), but the tale ends happily as the couple is united. This backstory may in part account for Ashbery’s reading of Kitaj’s couple, his sense of their “strength,” which may or may not be a distraction from the picture itself. Of the people to whom I’ve shown the Kitaj image (without showing them the Dreyer still) most have assumed that the figure in the foreground is a woman. (Is that blusher on the figure’s cheek, rather than, say, a blush? Does the hairstyle accentuate the ambiguity? And that coat hanger on the wall — an intimation of drag?) Other paintings from this period show the artist’s interest in exploring gender roles and sexuality. And then there’s the nose, and the new contrast between the skin tones of the pair; is the figure meant to be Jewish? In later reflections on what he would refer to as his “Diasporist art,” Kitaj defined such artwork as “one in which a pariah people, an unpopular, stigmatized people, is taken up, pondered in their dilemmas” (such people, he noted, include homosexuals and Jews). The illicit nature of the coupling up in the painting may be socioeconomic, or sexual, or ethnic, or a coalescence of all these options. I think it would be hard to know whether, in privileging one over the other, we would move any closer to understanding what exactly is transpiring in this painterly poem.
Kitaj composed his picture during the period in which he was immersing himself in the work of Walter Benjamin. He found in Benjamin’s writing, he said, “a parable and a real analogue” for the methods and ideas he was pursuing in his own painting: a “film-like fragmentation, an additive, free-verse of an art.” What the film-like had led to in one of Benjamin’s most renowned essays — “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” — was a feeling for a kind of “reception in a state of distraction.” (Benjamin sensed that this receptiveness was beginning to be felt in many forms of modern art, but noted that “in its shock effect film goes halfway towards meeting this form of reception.”) This receptiveness might be imagined as a state in which perception is heightened on account of a distracted resistance to knowingness. And the state is felt, paradoxically, both as an exposure and as a strengthening, which takes us back to Ashbery’s suggestively dreamy lyrical reading of the picture.
Part of what the poet finds so moving about this couple is their ability to absorb distraction even as they are accosted by it. It’s the capacity to be distracted — not unrelated to paranoia, but not identical with it either — that somehow lends the figures their beauty. Looking at the picture again, I find myself wondering who was distracted first, and what difference that might make. I can’t tell which of them — if either — is more concerned to defend the other from the cause of the distraction. Who is about to reassure whom? Ashbery’s sense that the figures may not be distracted in the same way — one’s “intellectual alertness” is not quite the same thing as the other’s “delicate apprehension” — bears on this question. Each of them, I sense, has something the other lacks and needs, something that may well be forthcoming if need arises.
In one poem Ashbery writes of “the way things have of enfolding / When your attention is distracted for a moment.” Enfolding. The etymology of “distraction” (“to pull asunder”) would usually tend toward a sense of unfolding (one OED definition of distraction is “dispersion, scattering”). But in Ashbery — and in the Kitaj image — distraction includes an embrace that gains rather than lessens in power. In finding each other so absorbing, in attending to one another in this way, the couple becomes newly distractible, freshly susceptible to how living so fully “in the moment” will involve a sense of the moment’s centrifugal force, and with it, a feeling that their center cannot hold. Yet the center is holding; the picture’s freezing of this moment won’t let the embrace dissolve, and the distraction conspires to sponsor the couple’s strength.
Whatever or whoever has disturbed these lovers (a surrogate for the viewer of the painting, perhaps) may even have cause to feel envious of them, envious of the very way in which they don’t appear to be excessively flustered or panicked. To my eye, Kitaj’s lovers are depicted as less fraught than they appear in the still from Dreyer’s film. Part of what makes them so disarming is that they do not themselves appear to be wholly disarmed by distraction. Benjamin suggested that “film is the art form that corresponds to the heightened state of mortal peril that modern man must face. The need to expose himself to shock effects is an adaptation by man to the risks that assail him.” Ashbery’s response to the couple as encountered through Kitaj’s film-like, additive, free-verse form seems to be offered in similar spirit, and although he notes that the figures are not allegorical, he does find them exemplary of something. They could be read as both poets and readers of a particular kind, the kind that will allow themselves to be distracted by peril, distracted into it, in order to get closer to what they desire.
Ashbery once suggested that his poetry would be doing its job only if its audience were intermittently aware of it while thinking about other things at the same time. He added that this sort of indirect, half-conscious attention is actually harder to summon up on purpose than the usual kind, just as free-associating out loud is harder than speaking in an ordinary, logical manner (resisting the impulse to make sense requires effort). And the promise of such an effort, a promise frequently but not always fulfilled, is that something valuable may come of it, something akin to the moment in Flow Chart when we find ourselves taking “a wrong turning and then after a fretful period emerging in some nice / place we didn’t know existed, and would never have found without being misled / by the distracted look in someone’s eyes.” It’s as if distraction as a compositional principle (the look in the poet’s eyes) has been handed on to the reader as a legacy. Ashbery elsewhere expressed approval of Richard Howard’s remark that his poetry “reaches a pitch of distraction,” a remark that might be taken to refer both to what the creator does and to what happens when the poem acts upon its audience.
For what, in fact, do we see when reading poems? When Ashbery writes of the fields he played in as a child, or the house in which he grew up, or of “how the light stood on the water that time,” I don’t see what he saw, but I do see something: flashes or flickers of my own past are superimposed onto the description I’m reading, or blurred into it. I become distracted by the work, distracted from it, thrown back into my own experience (as Ashbery said of Stein’s Stanzas in Meditation, such writing provides “a general, all-purpose model which each reader can adapt to fit his own set of particulars”). Too much attentive illustration from the poet would leave me with little work to do because it would provide me with a space that is already too specific, too filled in with detail. From this perspective, poems are not simply recipients of our concentration, but spurs to action, and the digressions and inattentions they inspire in us are both side effects and main events. To attend to the poem as an idol, or as a fetish, is a category error because it absolves us of our need to be distracted from it.
Ashbery’s comment in “Fragment” that “the part in which you read about yourself / Grew out of this” is a way of saying that poems shouldn’t be afraid to allow room for their readers to have thoughts. He speaks to us from inside his poems by saying of his work:
Look at it talking to you. You look out a windowOr pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.— From Paradoxes and Oxymorons
It’s as though the poem exists to remind us that our absent-mindedness is more present than we realize, as though distraction were always hiding in plain sight. We are not called simply to “Look at it” (that would be merely attentive of us), but to look at it as it talks to us, and as it talks we may be inattentive in weird ways. (Why, for example, might we “pretend” to fidget? For whom are we pretending?) Such mysteries and missings aren’t the worst things that might happen; in the space vacated by our no longer having or getting each other, we could begin to learn a different kind of game or lesson, one in which understanding doesn’t signify winning.
In “The System,” Ashbery imagined a lesson of sorts — a blackboard, some benches, a teacherly voice — and wherever there is a lesson, there is distraction:
And as the discourse continues and you think you are not getting anything out of it, as you yawn and rub your eyes and pick your nose or scratch your head, or nudge your neighbor on the hard wooden bench, this knowledge is getting through to you, and taking just the forms it needs to impress itself upon you, the forms of your inattention and incapacity or unwillingness to understand. For it is certain you will rise from the bench a new person.
To imagine a “form” for inattention, to imagine inattention itself as a form, when it is so often conceived as a descent into formlessness, is itself a rare new lesson. A few years after Ashbery wrote these lines, when he could “no longer escape teaching” and so began offering classes at Brooklyn College, he found himself assailed by questions from students like “What is poetry, anyway?” and “Why is this a poem?” This was his response:
The medieval town, with friezeOf boy scouts from Nagoya? The snowThat came when we wanted it to snow?Beautiful images? Trying to avoidIdeas, as in this poem? But weGo back to them as to a wife, leavingThe mistress we desire? Now theyWill have to believe itAs we believe it. In schoolAll 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?— What Is Poetry
In interviews Ashbery glossed the memories and images behind some of these lines and acknowledged the role of free association in the making of the poem: “those things got connected,” he said, “just because of one’s automatic temptation to connect something with something else.” Fair enough; just because. Yet I sense that more is at stake here than mere personal predilection (the lyric has no I in it, but plenty of wes), and that the temptation is a form of distraction the poet wouldn’t want others to be without. When I wonder, for example, whether “frieze” led him to think of “freeze,” which then led him to “snow,” I also wonder whether such associations are in fact my distractions rather than his. Either way, I don’t think I’m being encouraged to disavow such motions of thought.
The poem is a sonnet of sorts, and so a kind of love song, with the turn arriving in the ninth line when there’s a shift to what happens “in school.” “We don’t teach distractedness in school, although perhaps we should,” Adam Phillips has suggested. In one of Ashbery’s most cherished books — Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — the heroine dreams up a Mock Turtle who learns many things in school: “the different branches of Arithmetic — Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.” Sounds like a great place to learn for those who entertain suspicions about the ways in which some teachers insist on things always adding up. Ashbery observed that nonsense writing is “one of the purest streams of poetry,” one that “bubbles up everywhere,” and such poetry can’t help but be distracted. Indeed, the poems of Alice’s dreams come from an inability or unwillingness to learn her lesson:
“I’ll try and say ‘How doth the little — ’” and she crossed her hands on her lap, as if she were saying lessons, and began to repeat it, but her voice sounded hoarse and strange, and the words did not come the same as they used to do.
When she later reads “Jabberwocky,” she is forced to concede: “It seems very pretty ... but it’s rather hard to understand!... Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas — only I don’t exactly know what they are!” One meaning of the verb “distract,” as the OED notes, is “to throw into a state of mind in which one knows not how to act; to perplex or bewilder greatly.” And it could be a relief, rather than a torment, not to know how to act. Poetry is, among other things, a reminder that bewilderment may be a bequest.
Ashbery identified the mysterious “they” in his poem:
The teachers, the authority figures. The thought got combed out at school, just as your mother used to comb your hair in the morning when you were running to catch the school bus. The teachers tried to make everything simple and understandable, by combing out the snarls in one’s thinking.
To try to avoid ideas, as in this poem, is to try to get back to the snarls of thinking; clear ideation is what you lapse into when you learn to resist the strange distraction, the perplexity, the wilderness of thought. And, when Ashbery came to occupy the place of the teachers, he decided to leave both his students and readers with another question: “It might give us — what? — some flowers soon?”
I overheard a boy saying that particular line to a girl in Brentano’s bookshop where I was browsing.... I also like it that the couple who were talking seemed to be lovers, so the line ... seemed to have special meaning for them.
So the poet was browsing for a book, presumably, but got distracted by a question, a desire, something that wasn’t quite his but was something he could use. At public readings of “What Is Poetry,” Ashbery often pointed out that the title doesn’t have a question mark. Perhaps the “what?” of the last line might therefore be read as constitutive of the what-ness of what poetry is. For what was the tone, exactly, with which the lover said “what?” — was it interrupted, distracted, or was it uttered with a certain fond, flirtatious panache? More of the latter, I guess, but with a little of the former too. It is, of course, a private joke, but like all good jokes — especially those shared between lovers — even the teller can’t be entirely sure what or just how much it signifies.
The impossibility of hearing the line precisely, of knowing its “special meaning,” is part of the pleasure of encountering it. (I’m not sure I want to know the meaning; I only know that I enjoy more meaning.) The line has something of “that distraction and intense desire” of which Wordsworth spoke in The Prelude — at once a digression and a new possibility, a dalliance and a gift. Granted, the couple only seemed to be lovers (Ashbery acknowledges his wishful, and possibly wistful thinking), but the imagining is in some sense a furtherance of — or blissful distraction from — the wife-mistress dichotomy that appeared a little earlier in the poem. That dichotomy echoes Ashbery’s vision of “the present” in Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, “the present we are always escaping from / And falling back into,” which is unsatisfactory on account of its either-or-ness (you are either “with” your wife, or you’re not; you are either “in” the present, or not; you are either attentive, or not). To imagine “lovers,” though, is to elaborate a relation, or a shape, or a space for distractedness that may cross divides (married couples needn’t cease to be lovers; you may be more in touch with the present when you apprehend it as shot through by both past and future; and there is such a thing as being attentively inattentive). In its way, a poem is “a thin vertical path,” but it is a path that may need to be diverged from if the poem is to offer anything. And when Ashbery lets his experience of being waylaid by the couple’s intimacy into his writing, when he flirts with the uncharted, unchartable nature of that intimacy as a way of conjuring up a relationship with the reader, he appears to be wondering what’s keeping us from distraction.
The experience of poetry is an experience I can’t quite attend to — or don’t always want to. Or maybe poetry isn’t working on me unless its hold on me is tenuous, unless it moves me to make tenuous connections. To be with a writer you love and to think of something else — this, for Ashbery, is what being with poetry is. And both the contours and the stakes of this encounter recall an earlier one, for being with someone we love while thinking of something else is our founding experience of reading itself. We were originally read to, held by a parent or caregiver as our attention was distracted into a book that their voices brought to life for us. In this sense, books may help to nurture what Donald Winnicott referred to as the capacity to be alone:
This experience is that of being alone, as an infant and small child, in the presence of mother. Thus the basis of the capacity to be alone is a paradox; it is the experience of being alone while someone else is present.... Being able to enjoy being alone along with another person who is also alone is in itself an experience of health.
The enjoyment tells of health because through such pleasure the child discovers his own personal life. Gradually, Winnicott notes, the supportive environment is introjected and built into the individual’s personality so that he develops the capacity actually to be alone. (“Even so, theoretically, there is always someone present, someone who is equated ultimately and unconsciously with the mother.”) During reading, this “someone” is the absently-present writer. The book provides a script or a score of sorts that we may perform and digress from; we are being invited to come and go as we please. The capacity to be alone can therefore be redescribed as a capacity for distraction, or as a willingness to play at being distracted; and we can only be distracted if we feel safe, safe enough to risk disorientation. Feeling sufficiently assured of our relatedness, we are able to go our own way.
In Playing and Reality, Winnicott recalled one patient saying to him that “people use God like an analyst — someone to be there while you’re playing.” Books, like parents, can be used in a similar fashion. And a good enough book, like a good enough parent, will hold us by holding our attention even as it allows our attention to stretch to distraction. Such a book, Proust observed,
contents itself with giving us the use of itself.... An intelligent mind knows how to subordinate reading to its personal activity. Reading is for it but the noblest of distractions, the most ennobling one of all.
Indeed, to “attend” is “to stretch to” (ad to + tendere to stretch), so attention itself should be conceived not so much as fixity, but as a kind of motion — more like a searchlight than a spotlight — as though intense absorption were always searching for ways in which it might convert itself into distraction. In response to Paul North’s observation that we can never say “I am distracted,” it might also be ventured that we can never truly say “I am absorbed.” Lack of cognizance of both states as they are experienced hints at a hidden alliance.
So: one final distraction that bears on this strange state of affairs, a distraction that kept Ashbery fascinated, on and off, throughout his life. It’s provided by his favorite American poet — Elizabeth Bishop — in a poem he first read in June 1948: “Over 2000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance.” He wrote to Kenneth Koch that month imploring him to read it, adding that he himself had already “read it at least 20 times.” Twenty years later, he found himself returning to it “again and again, ravished and unsatisfied ... unable to exhaust the meaning and mysteries of its concluding line.” The poem presents a scene of reading — it begins with Bishop studying an old illustrated Bible and concordance that belonged to her grandfather — but the book acts as a prompt for a distraction into the trials and tribulations of her own life, her voyages, the things she’s seen, heard, loved, feared (“Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’”).
And ...? And she’s then distracted from these memories back to the book once more, to a nativity scene, and the poem ends:
Open the book. (The gilt rubs off the edgesof the pages and pollinates the fingertips.)Open the heavy book. Why couldn’t we have seenthis old Nativity while we were at it?— the dark ajar, the rocks breaking with light,an undisturbed, unbreathing flame,colorless, sparkless, freely fed on straw,and, lulled within, a family with pets,— and looked and looked our infant sight away.
Childlike, I danced in a dream;Blessings emblazoned that day;Everything glowed with a gleam;Yet we were looking away!
We couldn’t see the Nativity — or anything else, for that matter — while we were at it because our attention was always already elsewhere, or always on the way elsewhere. We can’t attend to our attention, and part of the rueful comedy of experience comes from our missing out on our experiences while we’re having them. The feeling is close to that which James Schuyler once recalled: “An instance of what Pasternak somewhere wrote: that life, in order to accomplish its purposes, turns our attention from itself.”
The longer I turn my attention to and from Bishop’s lines, the stranger they become. Faced by the question “Why couldn’t we have seen / this old Nativity while we were at it?” I want to ask: Who are “we” here? And in what sense, precisely, can the speaker and those for whom she speaks say that they were “at” the Nativity? It’s as though, in mourning the fact that her very absorption in her moments is a distraction from them, she is briefly seduced into a compensatory fantasy of her being in other people’s moments (excluded from her own experience, she imagines belonging to someone else’s). Still, those present may also have been thinking of other things, pondering the causes and consequences of the moment even as they inhabited it. What, I wonder, was the family — or even the “pets” — thinking of when they looked on the infant Jesus?
To look and look one’s sight “away” could be to feast one’s eyes on something, and it could signal a sort of dissipation as a result of such concentration (the gaze passes out of itself, or into other things). In 1969, Ashbery offered one gloss of the meaning and mysteries of the concluding line (“Looking, or attention, will absorb the object with its meaning”) and added that “the power of vision, ‘our infant sight,’ is both our torment and our salvation.” Eight years later he returned to the words and tried again, reading the line as “a perfect summation of the poet’s act — the looking so intense that it becomes something like death or ecstasy, both at once perhaps.” Such intensity makes it hard to tell absorption and distraction apart. It’s also significant that this vision of looking arrives (or returns) with the image of “a family,” with the intimation that the infant sight for which the poet so longs could only be founded on the security and safety that a family provides. That family wasn’t available to Bishop when she wrote the lines, perhaps had never been available to her, and the poignancy of the words is partly shaped by a doubt about how far she could hope to internalize or assimilate even the fantasy of such an environment. And yet, what Bishop sees in the book before her is a vision of absorbed distractedness that her lines themselves wish to practice, a vision that they do practice, as far as they are able.
In 1997 there was a group reading from Jorie Graham’s anthology of great poems of the English language, Earth Took of Earth. Ashbery chose to read Bishop’s poem. When he reached the last stanza, he cried. It’s tempting to say that the lines presented some kind of problem for him, a problem that went to the heart of what it meant for him to be both a poet and a person. It may also be tempting to say that these are our problems too. Having succumbed to the temptation, it would only be fair to recall, by way of reply, a remark once made to Ashbery by Henri Michaux: “When something is good it distracts you from your problem.”
Matthew Bevis’s books include Edward Lear and the Play of Poetry (2016), coedited with James Williams, and Comedy: A Very Short Introduction (2012), both from Oxford University Press.