What paying attention involves

It is fairly self-evident that difficult poetry requires concentration and our attention if we are to make sense of it. This however is a specific kind of attention, one that requires us to be aware of the words, the form and how the poem sounds when read aloud. Good poetry of any kind should also challenge both our thoughts and emotions and the reader should also be aware of those challenges as they occur.

It may seem obvious that paying attention involves reading the words but many of us in these hurried times are now scanning lines of text and doing so with this kind of material is quite counter-productive. The positioning and use (or absence of punctuation) also needs to be attended to as do line length and breaks.

Keston Sutherland has recently said "...being a reader of poetry means engaging closely and carefully with it, staking an intimacy on the work of interpretation, in some way perhaps even needing that intimacy or submitting to it as a sort of definition of oneself, or the component of a definition. Some poetry demands and makes possible that sort of intimacy more than other poetry." Sutherland was speaking (mostly) about the poetry of J H Prynne but the same can be said of other difficult poets. On the face of it this would seem to be over-stated but we do use all kinds of experiences to define ourselves. Poetry (if it's any good) speaks to us on a very personal and intimate level and encourages us to compare our own thoughts and feelings with those of the poet.

I'll probably want to take issue with Keston's repeated use of 'intimacy' and the claim with regard to self-definition. My own experience seems to involve a period of attention followed by a much longer period of rumination where the various possibilities are thrown around in mind until something vaguely sensible emerges. I've also found that repeated attention does throw many new facets to light, especially with Prynne and Celan.

To actually get close to what those thoughts and feelings may be we need to concentrate on the poem, to pay real attention to what the words say, to identify the various shades and nuances of meaning and to commit ourselves to working out what is being said and how it is expressed.

Paying attention can involve a forensic analysis of a poem, J H Prynne has recently published 'Field Notes' which is a 134 page reading of Wordsworth's 'The Solitary Reaper' which is a 32-line poem and has also produced a book length reading of one of Shakespeare's sonnets and an equally attentive reading of George Herbert's 'Love III'.

Paying attention can also require concentration on all elements of the poem at once. This is relatively straightforward with short poems but does become more taxing with longer work. Retaining this overview enables the reader to adjust his or her interpretation as each difficulty is resolved.

Difficult poetry isn't like a text book or a scholarly essay requiring just an intellectual understanding of what is written, poems of this sort also have emotional and aesthetic qualities that often get overlooked because readers are often exclusively searching for 'meaning'.

So, paying attention means allowing yourself to experience the poem in all its many dimensions and registering at some deeper, but not necessarily intimate, level the effect that this has on you. The attentive reader will find this both a rich and moving exprience.