In the rift between what is going to happen and whatever we would wish to happen, poetry holds attention for a space, functions not as distraction but as pure concentration, a focus where our power to concentrate is concentrated back on ourselves (Seamus Heaney, The Government of the Tongue, 1988: 108).
There is an old interview with Don Paterson somewhere, in which he says that when he forgets how poetry goes he read(s) Seamus Heaney in order to ‘remind himself’. I remember reading this and giving a little fist-pump in agreement, as though he had articulated my own well-kept secret. I would go further and say the same is true for Heaney’s prose, much of which I find as memorable and suggestive as the great man’s poems.
The quotation above is a case in point. I have used it as part of my ‘academic’ writing, in papers at conferences, and as a discussion-starter with students on the intersection between poetry and pedagogy. It never ceases to exhaust itself, constantly shifting to reveal new and surprising meanings, especially when I am certain I have finally nailed it down.
Its marvellous, mysterious phrase ‘pure concentration’ popped into my head just the other day, as I was happily going about doing nothing in particular (or wishing I was). Except I did not remember it accurately. The phrase that came to mind was ‘pure distraction’. As you may know, I have been thinking a lot about distraction recently, mostly on account of deciding to take my leave (for now, at least) from Twitter.
It’s been nearly a month. Part of me thinks I should have something to show for it by now, like a sheaf of new poems, or a novel. I don’t have those things. I don’t even have ten new blogs to rave on to you about. Or ten new books. (Three, maybe, but not ten…) What I do have is an exquisite memory, just the other Saturday, of reading almost the entire paper in one go, while sipping coffee. Or of seeing the sea materialise suddenly at the end of a field in Dorset, just when I thought it might never. Or of catching up with a friend in a café. Ordinary things, not really worth mentioning, yet somehow monumental.
The link between giving up Twitter and discovering these pleasures will never be proven. And that is fine. But I have absolutely no doubt that they are very much related. It turns out, of course, that I am not ‘purely distracted’ but ‘purely concentrating’, up on the deal as ever.
Synchronicity. Only yesterday I used that very quote for a talk I’ve been asked to give on poetry and this morning your blog arrives ‘out of the marvellous’… fab…
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I suspect that you might have been reading the Guardian. Am I right?
Best wishes from Simon
Love your paragraph about reading while sipping coffee and catching a glimpse of the sea. The old fashion way wasn’t so bad, right?
I have also forced myself to stay away from most social network tools this summer, and my reflection echoes yours. Yes, ordinary moments fly by without our noticing when we prefer the virtual world to the real one. My concentration level, my writing time and the number of books I read have deeply increased. I’ve missed reading some good blogs (like yours) but everything has a cost, right?
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Thank you so much. It’s great to have this affirmation. Good wishes, Evelyne, Anthony