I’m no spendthrift, yet I give away my most valued resource freely and with astonishing ease. The squandering begins even before I rise from bed, squinting as I do in the half-dark, my face warmed by the dim lantern of my phone screen. Throughout the day I drain the reservoir in small, frequent bursts—on the subway commute, during meals, as diversion from work, all the way until the release offered by sleep. And draining it is. This kind of scattershot spending empties you.
The resource I’m referring to is my attention. The word attention stems from the Latin ad tendere, meaning “to stretch toward.” Our attention determines the direction toward which we stretch our minds, yet all too often, exercising our attentional power feels less like intentional movement toward some select object of contemplation and more like the passive bracing for an onslaught of sensory input and competing stimuli.
Perhaps it comes as little surprise how easily we fritter away this resource when one considers the fact that its capture and commodification fuels a multibillion-dollar industry. Over the past century companies and advertisers have devised ever more ingenious and intrusive ways to cultivate our attention and resell it to bidders for a steep profit. In his latest book, The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016), Columbia Law School professor and author Tim Wu tracks the steady encroachment of once sacrosanct spaces by attention merchants who farm and monetize this “brutally limited resource.” According to Wu, advertising before 1930 remained largely confined to the public sphere, but the arrival of the television, radio, and the internet vastly expanded the reach of marketers to private zones previously protected from commercial content. Now, with smartphones tethered to us, our attention is available for the seizing during most of our day.
The Attention Merchants tells us that in exchange for the services and content we receive “free”—social media platforms, search engines, and mass media—we’ve permitted the pollution of our minds by targeted ads, clickbait, and sponsored articles and videos. The business model of attention merchants is to pull in consumers with free content, secure them in a state of distractibility—when they are most susceptible to advertising—and harvest this attention for commercial exploitation. Troublingly, the dynamics of this economy incentivizes technologists to keep adapting to changes in consumer habits and hatching new ways to ensnare users into a pattern of compulsive scrolling and clicking.
Wu believes we are living through an “attentional crisis,” and what’s at stake is how we spend our waking hours—“the very nature of our lives.” It boils down to a matter of autonomy, of who we allow to have ownership over our consciousness. “We must act, individually and collectively, to make our attention our own again, and so reclaim ownership of the very experience of living,” he writes.
Since the 2016 election my attention has grown reliably more skittish. The ceaseless news cycle, the fire hose of tweets from a certain figure in the White House, and the collective panic boiling over on social media impinges on more and more of my mental landscape. With my attention tugged about at such speeds, I find it nearly impossible to reflect or to rise above the conditioned mind. Scrolling past headlines, clickbait, status updates, and online ads, I’m reduced to merely a reactive being—a tangle of nerve endings. In any minute my mood can shift rapidly from rage to amusement to despair, synced as it is with what appears in my sight line.
In the wake of the election, one of the first books that exerted its gravitational pull on me was C. D. Wright’s poetry collection ShallCross (Copper Canyon Press), published in April 2016, a few months after Wright herself died, unexpectedly, at the age of sixty-seven. A Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and professor of literary arts at Brown University, Wright authored more than a dozen books of poetry and prose, including One with Others: [a little book of her days] (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award, and One Big Self: An Investigation (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), a collaboration with the photographer Deborah Luster, which bears witness to the lives of inmates in three Louisiana prisons. She was the recipient of numerous honors, among them the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Lannan Literary Award.
Wright remains for me a singular force in American poetry—the critic Joel Brouwer once wrote that she “belongs to a school of exactly one”—someone who dwelled in provinces of language and spirit where few of us dare to go. The moral vision that extends through her work is as bracing as the bite of her particular poetic sensibility. Her arresting idiom and neologisms and the inimitable gait and verve of her lines have a way of cutting directly to the core. One afternoon, feeling abraded by an ambush of Trump-related headlines, I set down my laptop and cracked open ShallCross.
Now who will make the record of us
Who will be the author
Of our blind and bilious hours
Of the silken ear of our years
Who will distinguish our dandruff
From the rest among the gust of history
These lines from the title poem greeted me, quietly sublime. My mind swung open. Each line slid into view, aerated but with heft. The utterances, bearing Wright’s trademark sensory richness, continued to unfold on the page—some vatic and invoking the absolute, others rooted in the material world through fugitive pieces of memory. The scale of a human life, the poem suggests, is but a bit of “dandruff,” set against cosmic time. As I lapped up each fragment, I could sense some internal rhythm getting recalibrated. Time, which a few minutes ago felt excruciatingly compressed, broadened.
I've joked on occasion that I was drawn initially to poetry because of a restive attention span. The truth is, poetry—both reading and writing it—alters my relation to time. It’s not that poetry indulges the stirrings of a twitchy mind or the demand for velocity and easy gratification. On the contrary. One of the enduring pleasures of poetry lies in how poems ask us to tune in to a different frequency, a kind of deep listening and looking that can still the mind and enlarge the dimensions of the self. The poems that call for and reward repeated encounters sustain some sense of the hidden or unknowable, some darting mystery that flickers from view as soon as I aim my attentional beam on them. In that sense, they have built into them a capacity for opening up over time, yielding to multiple readings, proddings, and returns.
In The Attention Merchants, Wu distinguishes between two basic kinds of attention: transitory and sustained. Transitory attention is “quick, superficial, and often involuntarily provoked,” while sustained attention is “deep, long-lasting, and voluntary.” The former, a cognitive mode characterized by flitting between different tasks and information streams, is the kind that attention merchants capitalize on. It animates our fragmented, distracted living. The latter is the vein we tap into when our attention is held in one place and the mind brought to heel before a single object of contemplation.
Brought before “ShallCross,” I must abandon my habituated ways of directing my attention. I’m not scanning for facts and information, the way I do when I scroll through most media on a screen, and I have no compulsion to race toward an end. The poem’s charged fragments resist tidy paraphrase. I can harvest very little information from them, yet I pull from their deep wells of knowledge and knowing. This mode of wholly conscious engagement releases me from the chain of reactivity, from which so much anxiety springs. “ShallCross” is by equal measure unfathomably intimate, as if overheard, and beguilingly strange. The strangeness awakens my concentration and whets my appetite for difficulty; the shifts in perspective and register refuse to let my attention fall slack. When I read the poem, my eyes might wade down the page, but they also alight and linger. I drift laterally or forward, I turn back, I hover, I peer closely, I hold.
In his book Slow Art: The Experience of Looking, Sacred Images to James Turrell (University of California Press, 2017), Arden Reed casts his attention on a new “aesthetic field” he has termed slow art. According to Reed, slow art is not a set of aesthetic objects, per se, but rather the prolonged encounter “between beholders and beheld” that unfolds in space and time when an artwork and spectator mutually activate each other. Reed traces the rise of slow art to two simultaneous cultural changes: the escalation of speed in everyday life due to modern capitalism and technological developments and, simultaneously, the increasing secularization of the Western world.
As our pace of life accelerated, Reed notes that “occasions to slow one’s tempo became harder to access—like devotional practices requiring viewers to focus intensely on single works over long periods of time.” The thirst for slowing down came when secularization took away the opportunities to do so; as a result “slow art came to supplement older sacred practices by creating social spaces for getting off the train.” Slow art provides us with the refuge we seek from speed culture, Reed argues, and its value lies in the consoling joys of lingering contemplation and repeated encounters that open the door to wider insight and understanding.
I prefer my art slow. “ShallCross” forces my mind to decelerate. The architecture of the poem—those deceptively compressed lines and the silence that surges from the margins and between fragments—makes my gaze linger. Certain passages dilate time by intensifying my senses, inviting me to bring to mind “a bee entering a quince” or the sound of “rubbing / Oil on someone else’s limbs.” By isolating and foregrounding mundane particulars, Wright coaxes the reader into more expansive ways of seeing and knowing and, in doing so, underscores the fullness of what goes unperceived in our accelerated existence. The poem also disciplines my attention, retraining my mind to dwell in open awareness—a kind of fluid but deep concentration. “ShallCross” proceeds by way of intimation and by tugging the reader along in its wild foraging. When I make my way through the poem, my usual faculties of sense-making are unlatched, and I must feel my way forward with my unknowing. Through elusive fragments, I am given momentary glimpses of what vibrates beneath the surface of the poem: the mystery of being and not being.
Don’t shut it I said We lack for nothing
Across the lines of our lives
The once the now the then and again
“ShallCross” ends on these lines that immerse the reader in the flux of experience, in the unboundedness of time and existence. Our lives are bound up with one another, the poem insists, and yet so much suffering springs from drawing borders and shutting out—in losing sight of our wholeness.
When I step off the page, “ShallCross” doesn’t release me from its hold. The pressure it exerts leaves my perception altered, the way good, indelible art does. I return from it with a sense that elsewhere, I’ve been complicit in limiting my mind and its capacity to connect, restricting its depth and latitude.
In her book Cooling Time: An American Poetry Vigil (Copper Canyon Press, 2005), Wright tells us “it is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free and declare them so.” No one said it better. For me, “ShallCross,” like so much of Wright’s work, carves out a zone in which nothing can be bought or sold—a locus of resistance to the attention merchants and the kind of distracted living that narrows and diminishes the spirit. It bears the necessary reminder that there are alternative ways of moving and being in the world—liberated from the pressure of the immediate, the thrashing of the purely reactive self—if we only reclaim our attention and reawaken to our inseparability with others—with the one big self.
This essay originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2018 issue of American Poets, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2018 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To receive American Poets, become a member.