On Poetry and the Reallocation of Concentration: Learning to Forget
All poets seem to agree that writing, when it’s going well, involves a loss of the awareness of time. Writers from Milton to Blake have waxed—well, poetic—on the ecstasy of creativity that nudges us into the realm of the eternal, the kind of engagement that Elizabeth Bishop calls "self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration," what Alan Shapiro calls "that experience when you sit down at the desk at 10 a.m. and when you look up it’s 6 p.m., when eight hours have gone by as if in a moment." But what exactly is happening in our brains when we cease to become conscious of time? A possible answer comes from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Professor of Psychology and Education at the University of Chicago, whose research on how we engage ourselves in everyday activities could have some interesting revealing implications for the writer who seeks to understand what happens when we lose ourselves in the writing of a poem.
Csikszentmihalyi coined the term "flow" to describe times when one is so deeply engaged in an experience—making love, creating art, playing chess, having a profound conversation with a friend—that time ceases to matter. Deep engagement with these experiences can result in the harmony born from effortless action, what is sometimes termed "being in the zone" for athletes, or "rapture" for mystics. In Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, he states the conditions in which this harmony is most likely to occur. First, flow-producing activities have "a clear set of goals that require appropriate responses"; poetry writing meets this criterion because each poem sets its own goals in terms of length, music, metrical requirements, and so forth. Secondly, flow activities provide immediate feedback. In the case of poetry, we provide ourselves with feedback as we see each word and line propel the poem toward fulfillment. Finally, flow is more likely to occur when one’s skills are fully engaged in reaching a goal that is difficult but not insurmountable. For poets, the act of writing is sufficiently difficult when one isn’t returning to overly familiar subject matter or steering the poem to a predestined conclusion. Yet the difficulties of composition won’t be insurmountable as long as, during the initial chaos of composition, the poet doesn’t feel unready because she hasn’t written enough, or read enough, to allow for the poem’s necessities to unfold during the window in which they can be apprehended freshly. But when the challenge is high and our skills to meet the challenge are equally high, writes Csikszentmihalyi, "There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts, irrelevant feelings. Self-consciousness disappears, yet one feels stronger than usual. The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes."
So when we sit down at our desk, what needs to happen, it seems, is a concentration reallocation. Instead of paying 5% of our attention to twenty things, we need to pay 100% of our attention to the One Big Thing, in this case, the emerging poem. Sometimes, the other things that beg for our attention won’t give up without a fight. But we need to be professional amnesiacs, to tune out the phone ringing, the chastisement of the Visa bill, the visitor from Porlock. Not always—not often—but sometimes, we succeed in our forgetting to such an extent that the world shrinks to the 8.5 by 11 inch paper in front of us.
As poets, we put so much stock in the need to remember that perhaps we undervalue the importance of forgetting and our brain’s amazing ability to reallocate its concentration. But our brain’s neurotransmitters enact a marvelous push-and-pull between forgetting and remembering at every moment of the day. We only become aware of this chemical dance, however, during its most extreme fluctuations. An example of such a concentration shift that differs from a flow experience is when a mother gives birth and starts having problems remembering where she put her keys, her gloves, her head. What’s happening is that the chemicals in her brain are ensuring her short-term memory contains all the data concerning her newborn to the exclusion of any other data. Doctors term this "placenta brain." (How I wish I knew, after having my first baby, that my new stupidity was a chemical reaction. I thought I was losing my mind. How comforting! A name! What I had had a name!). It makes evolutionary sense that the mother concentrates exclusively on the baby’s needs. And in the same way, it makes evolutionary sense that, when birthing a poem, the poet concentrates exclusively on its creation.
So, to return to our original question, what exactly is happening in our brains when we cease to become conscious of time? We are narrowing the aperture of our concentration to condense and magnify its power. We forget the daily distractions and enter into the poem so deeply that a more radical forgetting take place—the forgetting of fossilized languages that lead to writing, and thinking in, clichés. We also forget the inherited relationships between people and things that prevent us from achieving new insights, new metaphors. We can forget enough so the blinders of habits and the cobwebs of irony are stripped and we are faced with the born world, dewy and dazzle-dripping. We can, through the discipline of forgetting, regain the child’s eyes of wonder. We can train our souls to recover "radical innocence," as W. B. Yeats advises. We can do the impossible: live in the moment. Which is another way of saying: live in eternity.