For National Poetry Month

Last year I read The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (here’s a summary and an excerpt The book stayed with me. It’s a compelling argument drawing on the known plasticity of the human brain to argue that the attentive mind is endangered in a world of information saturation and chronic distraction.

Part of the reason I connected with this book was personal, as I suspect is the case for many people. The state of mind described in the book—skimming, distracted, overstimulated yet helplessly jumping to the next post or email—felt so true to the state I find myself falling into online and at work. That was months before I got my first smart phone (I’m a late adopter of most things), and in the months since I’ve felt the pull of the small screen start to creep into my life as it sits within arm’s reach on my desk or coffee table.

But one of the side effects of the information age that has struck me the most involves poems. I have been reading, writing, and studying poetry for all of my adult life. And I’ve noticed a strange thing happening in the past year or so. I have some friends who regularly post long excerpts or entire poems on Facebook. And when I encounter poems in this environment, a frightening thing happens to me—I can’t read them. I can move my eyes across the words and grasp their general meaning. But I find myself unable to enter into the poem, to absorb its perspective and images, something I am far more practiced at doing than most people. The poem passes by me and I find myself strangely in the shoes of someone who doesn’t “get poetry.”

This is why I found this recent commercial so overwhelmingly insidious: While evoking the lofty Poetry, it presents its opposite—a world where everyone’s eyes are attached to a screen no matter where they are or what they are doing. In this world the Poetry the ad means to evoke is more lost than it ever has been.

We’re now well into good old National Poetry Month, with its public awareness campaigns that might make you feel that you should read poems in service of vague ideas of art and culture, in the same way that I feel I should really learn the constellations, or get more familiar with classical music, or read War and Peace. Because it’s a good thing to do and what educated people should do. Says somebody.

But this time, I’d like to present a much more immediate, and perhaps compelling reason to read poems: To recover your mind. To reach the state of mind that allows you to enter into a poem with patience and concentration is an antidote to the distraction that permeates most of our lives. To take in the poem requires an alert stillness, that, when recovered and sustained for even a few minutes, comes as an overwhelming relief. Poems can help us preserve our capacity for attention at a time when it is endangered beyond what we ever might have imagined when I began writing them twenty years ago.

So, try picking up a poem this month. On paper if possible, if not, try online, but close your other tasks and tabs. If you don’t like the poem or don’t get it, try a different poet. If you don’t like that one or don’t get it, try another poet. But after that, consider that the issue might be you. Breathe, settle into a moment of silence, and try again. There is something worth working for here.

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