An Exhilarant Attentiveness (1)

Posted by on Oct 13, 2014 in On Poetry | No Comments


By Cynthia Hogue.

Moments when I am most exhilarated by poetry are moments when the poem is most alert, awake to the material, and the beautiful materiality, of which it is composed. It is fully present to what it’s discovering in—and transmitting from—an ineffable source, call it the ground of the poem. Attentiveness, as Rusty Morrison has aptly characterized such full presence, which the poet brings to her task, “can excavate / rather than fill / the depths of [the] five senses,” and as well, I might add, the sixth sense. Perhaps Paul Celan had that in mind when he wrote that “attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.” A poet can bring to the page nothing so precious as a quality of soulful attentiveness, helping to shift how we regard and listen to the world and to others.

A poem should not be but do. For the poet, it is an active state. The material conditions of writing a poem require an action. The French poet Virginie Lalucq has described precisely the process of composition, the transmitting of that which we call a poem from mind to page: “The poem is cerebral. Its writing physical.” The poem I seek bespeaks a mindful attentiveness. It should venture all. Although I might resist the potential of a poem to be blunt and direct, I seek a poetry that, instead of choosing to avoid something, says it. It’s inconvenient or discomfiting or too beautiful or blinding to read. To invoke Julia Kristeva’s Revolution in Poetic Language, it’s herethical. I may have to put the poem that ventures all down, for it has paid attention to that which I would—wouldn’t we all?—rather ignore. Perhaps, as an attentive listener, the poet has listened fully, and the poem echoes something back to us, intensified, and we feel unavoidably exposed. That’s not true, we say, knowing full well that it is.

I seek poems that don’t exclude signs of their compositional process, their rough edges and their dumb and resonant hesitations and abruptions, even their disintegrativeness. I find these features dazzling, spare and fascinating, sometimes inscrutably daring. I, too, like the challenge of difficult poetry, the line whose internal folds or pleats are created by ellipses, the enjambments abruptly gliding off the linearity of statement in the middle of the syntactic unit. “Words are physical: words are nature and matter, order of place, changing place and force,” the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy writes of that of which poems are composed. “Words exert pressure. They go straight ahead of meaning, pressing at its sides: they sway themselves. The poem is a swaying of words” (my emphasis). I like the image of the poem swaying, whether in a light breeze or high wind (never in a vacuum). I seek a poem that is forceful enough to exert pressure on the world and into the world, to come out swinging.


Cynthia Hogue has published twelve books, including When the Water Came: Evacuees of Hurricane Katrina (interview-poems with photographs),and the co-translated Fortino Sámano (The overflowing of the poem), by Virginie Lalucq and Jean-Luc Nancy (Omnidawn 2012), winner of the 2013 Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets.  Among her honors are fellowships from the NEA, the Fulbright Foundation, and the MacDowell Colony.  Her eighth collection of poems is entitled Revenance (2014).  She teaches in the MFA program at Arizona State University.

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