Acts of Attention

Vermeer-Lacemaker

(Johannes Vermeer, The Lacemaker)

Concentration: the focusing of all one’s attention; the keeping of the mind fixed on something.

Towards the end of the first year of the Great War, Friday 16 July 1915, Vera Brittain noted in her diary, ‘I find it very difficult to read just now, especially fiction; the immense realities of the present crowd in upon my mind, making concentration almost impossible & fictitious events quite trivial.’[1]

The present certainly offers plenty of ‘immense realities’—not all of them likely to foster optimism—though I’m not finding it difficult to read. Still, concentration is a little trickier these days. There’s the matter of intensity; but also the question of duration. The rate at which I read varies wildly—a crime novel, however good, demands a different kind of attention from, say, The Anathemata of David Jones—but on average, if I manage a hundred or a hundred and fifty pages in a day, that’s pretty good going. Yet I remember—how many years ago?—reading a Dickens novel, perhaps Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, and reading four hundred or four hundred and fifty pages in a day.

So I seem to have lost that ability to stick to a single task, a single object of interest, for that length of time; but, of course, this is in large part because of the various distractions that can break my concentration and the habits I’ve lapsed into of allowing myself to be distracted.

Still, when I read of people who go crazy after eight hours without a phone, or who check their texts or emails every five minutes, a hundred and fifty times a day, I feel entirely dissociated from such patterns of behaviour. I’m not so easily distracted, am I? Just how often do I check the damned thing? In any case, here, sitting by the back door, reading, yes, Michel Leiris (‘Like many men, I have made my descent into Hell, and like some, I have more or less returned from it’),[2] my attention is caught—too easily caught—by a movement outside. And I mean this as a serial event: wind in the leaves, birds on the fence or on the bird table or, perhaps, this—neither a bird nor a plane:

Cat-tree

That cat—the visiting cat—is absurdly prone to distraction: a leaf, a fly, a cloud, gulls passing overhead, any of these will do. We have confidently diagnosed ADHD or the feline version of it. Yet, come to think of it, such behaviour has become typically human.

I was remembering—and getting almost right, from memory—an early passage in Aldous Huxley’s Island, when Will Farnaby, hearing the mynah bird utter its one-word message—‘Attention’—yet again, turns to Doctor MacPhail:

“Attention to what?” he asked, in the hope of eliciting a more enlightening answer than the one he had received from Mary Sarojini.
“To Attention,” said Dr MacPhail.
“Attention to attention?”
“Of course.”[3]

Paying attention: a transaction. We hand over a portion of ourselves and receive in return—what? It varies, of course, but, ideally, an addition, an augmentation, an enlargement of the self. Colette lamented that ‘We do not look, we never look enough, never attentively enough, never excitedly enough.’[4] What is enough? As John Ames, the narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, observes, ‘This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.’[5]

Not that it is simply a question of giving it attention. Don Gifford recalled the tale of Thoreau’s young friend Ellery Channing being reduced to tears because, as he himself admitted, ‘he knew so little about what merited recording that he returned home from his nature walks day after day with an empty notebook.’[6] And Robert Richardson writes of Thoreau ‘eagerly’ reading Ruskin and Gilpin, ‘whose work starts from the often ignored fact that the uneducated eye simply does not notice most of what is in front of it. Until our attention is called to this detail or that feature, we rarely scrutinize our surroundings, “in the full, clear sense of the word, we do not see.”’[7]

EstruscanPlaces

Attention at such a pitch is sometimes seen as a sacramental act: the Latin root of the word means an oath or a pledge. Of Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses, Declan Kiberd observes, ‘To each and every detail of the surrounding world he gives that close attention which is the nearest modern equivalent of prayer.’[8] D. H. Lawrence, writing of augury and divination, pointed out that there is ‘no other way when you are dealing with life.’ You may pray to a personal god or rationally mull things over but it amounts to the same thing in the end: ‘it is all the same process, ultimately: of divination.’ And he asserts that: ‘All it depends on is the amount of true, sincere, religious concentration you can bring to bear on your object. An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer. And you choose that object to concentrate upon which will best focus your consciousness. Every real discovery made, every serious and significant decision ever reached, was reached and made by divination. The soul stirs, and makes an act of pure attention, and that is a discovery.’[9]

An act of pure attention seems like something to aim at. Or, failing that, a hundred or so pages in a day punctuated by phones, emails, whirring birds and treed cats.

 
References

[1] Vera Brittain, Chronicle of Youth: Vera Brittain’s Diary 1913-1917, edited by Alan Bishop (London: Gollancz 1981), 221.

[2] Michel Leiris, Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility, translated by Richard Howard (1939; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), 6. I’m still in the midst of it—it may not all be as cheerful as that quotation suggests.

[3] Aldous Huxley, Island (1962; London: Vintage, 2005), 21.

[4] Colette, Looking Backwards: Recollections [Journal à rebours and De ma fenêtre], translated by David Le Vay (London: Peter Owen, 1975), 149.

[5] Marilynne Robinson Gilead (London: Virago 2008), 32.

[6] Don Gifford, The Farther Shore: A Natural History of Perception (London: Faber, 1990), 11-12.

[7] Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 53.

[8] Declan Kiberd, Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living (London: Faber and Faber, 2009), 89.

[9] D. H. Lawrence, Etruscan Places (1932), in D. H. Lawrence and Italy (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 54-55.

 

 

 

Making Hay

Hay-Castle-2

Hay-on-Wye, a small town in the Welsh Marches, has a couple of dozen bookshops—and, curiously, that’s more or less the number of books that we bought during our stay there.

There are probably two useful guidelines in such a situation: firstly, if you’re trying to cull the absurd quantity of books in your house, don’t choose a place famous as ‘the town of books’ in which to spend a few days; secondly, if you do go anyway, don’t pretend that you’re not going to buy books while you’re there. Take a list rather than scrabble around to produce one, on a creased half-sheet of paper, while moaning ‘I can’t think, I’ve gone blank’, in the face of acres of packed shelving.

Firbank

We simply needed—one of us rather more than the other—a change of scene and a chance to relax. It was certainly a change; and she did relax. Hay was a good choice: the right size, the right location, the right atmosphere; a couple of good places to eat; some fine walks within easy reach. The rented apartment was ideally placed and pleasant to be in: unfussily but well furnished and equipped. Looking out on a castle, its high wall often lined with jackdaws, suited me pretty well.

Imagists-1930

There are some indifferent, and a few very good, bookshops among Hay’s two dozen. Richard Booth’s Bookshop (and café and cinema) is extraordinary but our best haul was probably in the Hay Cinema Bookshop—and the laurel wreath, appropriately, must go to the wonderful Poetry Bookshop.

Poetry_Bkshp_via_Biblio.com

(Poetry Bookshop via biblio.com)

 

Walking among graves (with just a touch of Whitman)

After my walk yesterday to the old haunts near the Tobacco Factory where, until the end of last year, we spent our civilized, productive days in an office on the ground floor—bonjour, Andrew, ça va bien?—I was tempted to rewrite it in the form of a political fable.

I had, as raw material, those motorists whose IQ plummets by forty points when they get behind the wheel; the cats sauntering across roads, taking appalling risks for no good reason; and . . . luckily, I resisted the temptation.

Path

Today, I walk via Baked (for a dark rye loaf) up the Wells Road to the extraordinary Arnos Vale cemetery, 45 acres, established in the year of Queen Victoria’s accession (its first burial two years later), the birdsong practically deafening on some of the innumerable leafy paths that lead off in all directions from the paved road that runs through it. You can spend quite some time here and will find yourself walking slowly, however briskly you set out. . .

https://arnosvale.org.uk/

Grass_Graves

Cemetery grass brings to mind—not every mind, I grant you—what is, I think, one of the finest images in Whitman’s Song of Myself: ‘And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.’[1]

Leaves of Grass. I consider, briefly, the oddness of that title. We speak of blades of grass, usually, not leaves. Still, the reader’s attention is constantly directed to the leaf as single sheet of paper, or thickness of paper, the page of a book; and precious metals beaten thin, gold leaf and silver leaf: these uses are often highlighted or implied. Perhaps the main force of the title, though, is to collapse those assumed barriers between poet and reader, the world inside and outside the book, either the actual barriers (print, physical distance) or metaphorical ones (conventional roles of reader and writer, of literature itself):

Come closer to me,
Push close my lovers and take the best I possess,
Yield closer and closer and give me the best you possess.

This is unfinished business with me. . . how is it with you?
I was chilled with the cold types and cylinder and wet paper between us.[2]

The repetitions, the lengthening lines, the insistent murmuring of sibilants in those lines mime a rising erotic excitement. This is not a genteel, decorous reading, turning the pages in the library. This is a physical embrace.

Sunshine_Corner

I sit at a table on the café terrace with an Americano and the sun is, briefly, so warm on my back as to be uncomfortable; but I sit long enough to read Richard Holmes’ wonderful account of the discovery of a trunk belonging to Scrope Davies, in the private deposit vault of what became Barclays Bank, left there by Davies in 1820, as he fled the country following his financial ruin. ‘Everything that Scrope valued, and much that he did not, was hurled into the trunk’ on the evening of its owner’s hurried departure. In addition to clothes, letters, a lock of hair, tailor’s bills and betting slips, there were found—when the trunk was finally opened in 1976—twenty previously unknown letters from Byron to Scrope; a notebook containing Byron’s fair copy of the third canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (which Davies should have delivered to Byron’s publisher but did not); and notebooks from the Shelley circle, containing a fair copy of Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon as well as four of Shelley’s own poems, including two unknown sonnets.[3]

One of my favourite sentences in the whole piece, in the course of Holmes’ charting the history of Number 1, Pall Mall East and the name changes of the banks that occupied it: ‘Time passed, as it does in England.’ Which word would you care to stress here?

Sidetracks

Admittedly an unrelated photograph now, since this visiting cat is glancing not at Sidetracks but at the last few pages of William Boyd’s Sweet Caress, under the mistaken impression that its previous four hundred pages can be skipped.

Cat_Reading

No reading stamina. Wrong diet, probably.

 

References

[1] Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems, edited by Francis Murphy (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986), 68.

[2] These are the opening lines of the poem—untitled, as were all the poems in the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass—which was later called ‘A Song for Occupations’, though these lines were dropped: see Whitman: Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, edited by Justin Kaplan (New York: Library of America, 1982), 89.

[3] Richard Holmes, ‘Scrope’s Last Throw’, Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer (London: Harper Collins, 2000), 271-282.

Still cormorants, flickering authors

From close to the Arnolfini centre for contemporary arts, in the heart of Bristol’s harbourside, I’d seen a cormorant from time to time, as I had in other locations around the city, such as Wapping Wharf. Once I’d seen two, here, by the ferry stop at Nova Scotia Place. Now there were three. Apart from liking the distinctive look of them, and the dramatic gesture they sometimes make, of spreading their wings wide to dry them and holding that position for minutes on end, I had at the back of my mind two poems, or fragments of poems. One was a bit of doggerel from Christopher Isherwood, which runs:

The Common Cormorant or shag
Lays eggs inside a paper bag.
The reason you will see, no doubt,
It is to keep the lightning out.

But what these unobservant birds
Have never noticed is that herds
Of wandering bears may come with buns
And steal the bags to hold the crumbs.

Cormorants_three.JPG

The second was a poem that I recalled as being one of the first to make an impression on me in my schooldays, probably around the age of nine or ten. It was called ‘Flannan Isle’.

There’s a small history trailing after that first brief exhibit. Isherwood had written the verses in 1928 to accompany a cartoon in the book that eleven-year-old Sylvain Mangeot was making, entitled People One Ought to Know.[1] In 1935, it appeared in The Poet’s Tongue, credited to ‘Anon’ before being included in Isherwood’s collection, Exhumations, thirty years later.[2] Since the anthology was co-edited by W. H. Auden, with whom Isherwood was intimate for many years—and they collaborated on at least four works during the 1930s—it seems unlikely that Auden was unaware of the poem’s true authorship.[3]

Cormorants_two

As for the second poem, ‘Flannan Isle’, there were no complications, no curious details, no story there: I knew it was by James Elroy Flecker. My interest in him was slightly obscure, or at least removed from the man himself: the most enthusiastic praise of Flecker that I’d seen was by Douglas Goldring, the novelist, playwright, travel writer, polemicist—and author of several books dealing in part or entirely with Ford Madox Ford, including the earliest biography of him.[4] So, to work: ‘Flannan Isle’, by James Elroy Flecker.

Except that it isn’t.

The inimitable Guy Davenport once wrote, in a short and extremely funny essay about Joseph Cornell and the film-maker Stan Brakhage: ‘We are never so certain of our knowledge as when we’re dead wrong.’[5] ‘Flannan Isle’ is in fact by Wilfred Gibson, who featured strongly in several volumes of Georgian Poetry and was one of the ‘Dymock Poets’, so called because several of them lived around that Gloucestershire village in the years immediately preceding the First World War. Robert Frost and Edward Thomas are usually mentioned in this context, along with Gibson, Rupert Brooke, Lascelles Abercrombie and John Drinkwater.

Not only is the poem not by Flecker but it doesn’t specifically mention cormorants. Gibson’s 1912 poem is about the mysterious disappearance of three lighthousemen from the island. The narrator is on a boat sent to investigate, in response to puzzling reports:

And, as into the tiny creek
We stole beneath the hanging crag,
We saw three queer, black, ugly birds—
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For guillemot or shag—
Like seamen sitting bold upright
Upon a half-tide reef:
But, as we near’d, they plunged from sight,
Without a sound, or spurt of white.[6]

Close: the shag is similar to a cormorant, though smaller. And Isherwood, a.k.a. ‘Anon’, made them sound closer than that (‘The common cormorant or shag’).[7]

Barker, Thomas Jones, 1815-1882; The Charge of the Light Brigade

(Thomas Jones Barker, The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1877
© Defence Academy of the United Kingdom, Shrivenham)

Still, I can manage to see it as very positive, that, as a child, I was struck by the poem rather than the poet. At that age, I think, for a poem to stick in my head, it  needed either strong repetition, as in Tennyson’s ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’:

Cannon to right of them
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
Volleyed and thundered

or an unsettling image or situation, as in ‘Flannan Isle’; or a combination of both, as in Alfred Noyes’ ‘The Highwayman’, long a favourite anthology piece:

Her eyes grew wide for a moment; she drew one last deep breath,
Then her finger moved in the moonlight,
Her musket shattered the moonlight,
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him—with her death.[8]

Poems aside, I find that I can watch cormorants for quite a long time. That stillness, that sleek darkness. They stand, I stand. A restful arrangement. I wasn’t really aware of the ferocious, often murderous, anti-cormorant sentiment among anglers[9] and not familiar with  the negative associations of the word common among the Elizabethan writers. As a noun, then, it seems to mean ‘glutton’; as an adjective, ‘rapacious, ravenous’. Thomas Nashe uses the noun to mean a rapacious person—and employs it fairly often. In Pierce Penniless his Supplication to the Devil, Nashe’s persona is a ‘half-starved malcontent young poet who petitions the Devil to spirit away those capitalist ‘“cormorants”’[10] who ‘bung up all the wealth of the land in their snap-hance [with snap-locks] bags, and poor scholars and soldiers wander in back lanes and the out-shifts of the city, with never a rag to their backs.’ (What Nashe would think—and write— of our contemporary social and economic inequalities is rich food for thought.) Elsewhere, he divides companies of men into ‘corn’ and ‘chaff’: ‘the corn are cormorants, the chaff are good fellows which are quickly blown to nothing with bearing a light heart in a light purse.’[11]

The word’s origin hardly helps, apparently from the medieval Latin corvus marinus, ‘sea raven’, with clear links between ‘raven’ and the old verb meaning to hunt voraciously for prey. Shakespeare writes of ‘cormorant devouring time’, and the footnote in my copy of Love’s Labour’s Lost has: ‘Cormorant: ravenous. Elsewhere Shakespeare has “cormorant war” and “cormorant belly”.’ The character of Moth in the play is generally seen now as based on Nashe.[12]

All pretty hard on the cormorants, anyway, and in the teeth—ravenous, rapacious, gluttonous—of literary and angling disapproval, I shall continue to take pleasure in the sight of them.

 

References

[1] David Garrett Izzo, Christopher Isherwood Encyclopedia (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co, 2005), 37. People One Ought to Know was published in 1982.

[2] The Poet’s Tongue: An Anthology of Verse, edited by W. H. Auden and John Garrett (London: G. Bell, 1935), 123; as late as 1997, the author is given as ‘Anon’ in Old Chestnuts Warmed Up, edited by John R. Murray (London: John Murray, 1997), 17, there entitled ‘Birds, Bags, Bears and Buns’; Isherwood, Exhumations: Stories, Articles, Verses (London: Methuen, 1966), 7.

[3] The collaborative works are The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936), On the Frontier (1938), Journey to a War (1939).

[4] The Last Pre-Raphaelite: A Record of the Life and Writings of Ford Madox Ford (London: Macdonald, 1948; published in the United States as Trained for Genius). Goldring’s essay, ‘James Elroy Flecker: An Appreciation and Some Personal Memories’, was included in his Reputations: Essays in Criticism (London: Chapman & Hall, 1920), 1-35.

[5] Davenport, ‘Pergolesi’s Dog’, in Every Force Evolves a Form (Berkeley: North Point Press, 1987), 145.

[6] A. Methuen, An Anthology of Modern Verse (London: Methuen & Co., 1921), 84.

[7] The version of ‘the well-known nonsense poem’ quoted by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, in Birds Britannica (London: Chatto & Windus, 2005), 34, begins: ‘The common cormorant (or shag)’, making the identification (or misidentification) more explicit.

[8] Taken from The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse, chosen and edited by Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 344.

[9] Birds Britannica, 34-37.

[10] See Charles Nicholl, A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984), 2.

[11] The second quotation is from The Unfortunate Traveller: see The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, edited by J. B. Steane (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), 104, 255: the spelling is modernised in this edition.

[12] Love’s Labour’s Lost, edited by R. W. David (London: Methuen & Co., 1987), 3, xxxvi.