Poetry and the Mind of Concentration
Every good poem begins in language awake to its own connections--language that hears itself and what is around it, sees itself and what is around it, looks back at those who look into its gaze and knows more perhaps even than we do about who and what we are. It begins, that is, in the body and mind of concentration.
By concentration, I mean a particular state of awareness: penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open. This quality of consciousness, though not easily put into words, is instantly recognizable. Aldous Huxley described it as the moment the doors of perception open; James Joyce called it epiphany. The experience of concentration may be quietly physical--a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, amid thought "too deep for tears." Within action, it is felt as a grace state: time slows and extends, and a person's every movement and decision seem to partake of perfection. Concentration can be also placed into things--it radiates undimmed from Vermeer's paintings, from the small marble figure of a lyre-player from prehistoric Greece, from a Chinese threefooted bowl--and into musical notes, words, ideas. In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.
A request for concentration isn't always answered, but people engaged in many disciplines have found ways to invite it in. A ninthcentury Zen monk, Zuigan, could be heard talking to himself rather sternly each morning: "Master Zuigan!" he would call out. "Yes?" "Are you here?" "Yes!" Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. They are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence, free from the distractions of interest or boredom.
Writers, too, must find a path into concentration. Some keep a fixed time of day for writing, or engage in small rituals of preparation and invitation. One may lay out exactly six freshly sharpened pencils, another may darken the room, a third may develop as odd a routine as Flaubert, who began each workday by sniffing a drawer of aging apples. Immersion in art itself can be the place of entry, as Adam Zagajewski points out in "A River": "Poems from poems, songs/from songs, paintings from paintings." Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears--paradoxically--at the moment willed effort drops away. It is then that a person enters what scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described as "flow" and Zen calls "effortless effort." At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present--a feeling of joy, or even grief-but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself.
This may explain why the creative is so often described as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something "breathed in." We refer, however metaphorically, to the Muse, and speak of profound artistic discovery as revelation. And however much we may come to believe that "the real" is subjective and constructed, we still feel art is a path not just to beauty, but to truth: if "truth" is a chosen narrative, then new stories, new aesthetics, are also new truths.
Difficulty itself may be a path toward concentration--expended effort weaves us into a task, and successful engagement, however laborious, becomes also a labor of love. The work of writing brings replenishment even to the writer dealing with painful subjects or working out formal problems, and there are times when suffering's only open path is through an immersion in what is. The eighteenthcentury Urdu poet Ghalib described the principle this way: "For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river--/Unbearable pain becomes its own cure."
Difficulty then, whether of life or of craft, is not a hindrance to an artist. Sartre called genius "not a gift, but the way a person invents in desperate circumstances." Just as geological pressure transforms ocean sediment to limestone, the pressure of an artist's concentration goes into the making of any fully realized work. Much of beauty, both in art and in life, is a balancing of the lines of forward-flowing desire with those of resistance--a gnarled tree, the flow of a statue's draped cloth. Through such tensions, physical or mental, the world in which we exist becomes itself Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life. We seek in art the elusive intensity by which it knows.
Concentration's essence is kinetic, and the dictionary shows the verb as moving in three directions. The first definition of "to concentrate" is to direct toward a common center. This form of concentration pulls a poem together, making of its disparate parts a single event. A lyric poem can be seen as a number of words that, taken as a whole, become a new, compound word, whose only possible definition is the poem itself. That unity of purpose is a poem's integrity and oneness, drawing it inward and toward coherence.
The second definition is to focus one's attention; this aspect of concentration faces outward, and has to do with the feeling of clarity a good poem brings to both writer and reader. Clarity does not mean simplicity, or even ease of understanding--at times, only the most complex rendering can do justice to an experience, and other times, ambiguity itself is a poem's goal.