The Art of Noticing

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“The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice.”
—Joseph Campbell

Our multi-tasking/sound bite/microwave/remote-control culture encourages Noise instead of Noticing; Entertainment, not Engagement.  We have instant everything, from messages to coffee. We try to eat, drive, and talk on the phone all at the same time. Our to-do lists have to-do lists, and we wonder why we are perpetually crabby.

But the human heart knows what it requires.  Lovers of poetry know the instinctive truth of Campbell’s words.  Poetry earns its necessity because it is the Art of Noticing.  Poetry is the edifier of what we think and do.  In poetry, we find the essential paradox of solitude and communion, the elevation of our language, the intensification of our feelings, the compression of our thoughts.   I’ve come to think of reading poetry as the opportunity to remind myself of myself, to wander around in my own soul. The poem might be a stranger’s house, but the mirrors can hold anyone’s reflection.

A perfect line of poetry is an encounter and reminder of not only what is, but what is possible.   Yannis Ritsos begins a poem with the line, “The statues were the first to leave,” and we follow after them in eager surprise.  Pablo Neruda says, “The horses’ rumps were worlds and oranges,” and we realize a metaphor for the simultaneous vastness and specificity of beauty.  Odysseus Elytis tells us, “What I want is something difficult and translucent, like birdsong in a time of war,” and we face the challenge of living in this world with all of its wrenching contradictions.

We forget that we were all born as poets; children are innocent Masters of Noticing. A few weeks ago, when autumn was just beginning its suggestions of coolness and color, I was walking my son across the parking lot of his pre-school.  Sometimes, when the weather and traffic and timing are right, we hear trains in the distance. That morning was such a morning. My son stopped walking and looked up at me. “Mommy, what is the train asking about?”  Of course, I asked him what he meant.  His certainty that the train sounded confused and sad was absolute.  At the time, I told him that I didn’t know, but in the poet-part of my brain, his question obsessed me. I could not—would not—let it go, until I had written my way into it and through it, until I reached a response that satisfied me.   I leave it to individual readers to decide whether my response satisfies them.

“Mommy, What is the Train Asking  About?”

—Benjamin, age 5

Somewhere on the other side
of this long sunlight
and the match-flare leaves
the train thinks it’s alive,
shapes the sound
fading away from it
into the same question
over and over.
And because the stones are warm,                                                                                                                                                                                         the fields golden rod                                                                                                                                                                                                                   poured around purple vetch,
and the streams quiver
around the symmetry of frogs,                                                                                                                                                                                                   I can believe that this sound is a lingering—
not a hope for pity,
nor a naming of loss.

Unlike Henry David Thoreau, we may not be able to go to the woods to live deliberately, but we can go to poetry.  We can listen to the Writers Almanac.  We can visit the Poetry Daily website to begin each morning with a poem. We can memorize a poem–or even one amazing line— so that we have its music whenever and wherever we might need it. We can carry small volumes of poetry in a pocket or purse. We can nibble poems like fortune cookies as we wait in line at the grocery store.  We can make efforts to attend local poetry readings .  Poetry can expand the range of what we think and do—both collectively and individually.

Take some time, look in some poems.   Look:  there are wind chimes and the amber breath of bees and the exact sadness of an iron bridge at dusk.  Owls are naming the moon in their own language.  The train is asking a question. Did you notice?

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