- Forms of Poetic Attention by Lucy Alford
By Lucy Alford. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020.
On the cover of this fascinating book is the image of what the book flap calls a "canary resuscitator." An odd birdcage made of glass and metal, this actual contraption, the size of a small lantern, was once carried underground by English miners; whenever the canary stowed inside showed signs of carbon monoxide poisoning, a miner could close the glass door and then open a valve connected to a tiny oxygen tank in order to restore the bird back to health. The resuscitator's image prefaces Alford's exploration of poetic attention in a provocative way, without ever being explicitly brought up by the author. Given the archaic correspondence between birdsong and poetry, we can readily imagine how this device might signify some external apparatus useful for reviving an ailing genre. Yet as Alford's expansive book makes clear, poetry is far from endangered and doesn't need criticism's interventions. Why then feature the resuscitator on the cover? Beneath the book's investigations may be the subtle suggestion that literary criticism itself requires reviving, could stand a little more oxygen.
Nowhere does Alford make such broad, antagonistic claims about the limits of criticism, yet the sweep of the book itself—its cross-cultural scope, its inclusive, transhistorical archive, its privileging of close reading—affirms an alternative version of what literary study might look like in an economy that values specialization, and within an academic climate that can often feel dominated by what Alford calls the "routine overtheorization" of historicist criticism in particular (107). Instead, this book takes on the timeless aesthetic ground of attention, a fundamental medium "as old and as central to poetry as language itself," which gets variously "infected" by conditions including "sociopolitical context, poetic convention, prevailing modes of reading, and the attention cultures surrounding both the act of writing and the act of reading" (7). Moving between poets as various as Sappho and Paul Celan, the sixth-century Sufi poet Rabi'a al-Basri and Audre Lorde, the highly personal, inevitably subjective act of selecting and reading poems is Alford's primary investigative interest, and her book crafts a language to describe the "bottom-up, phenomenological process" by which the formal object of the poem both represents and generates "the very shape and texture of inner life" (5, 270).
Poetic attention, as Alford defines it, is a latent precondition for reading akin to consciousness, the raw material upon which a poem acts in its work [End Page 123] of attuning readers to any number of states of being, to phenomenological Stimmung, to temporally inflected moods. In categorizing how this process operates, Alford proposes four modes of "transitive attention," in which poems are oriented around a particular object (real, desired, remembered, or imagined), and four modes of "intransitive attention," when the poem orchestrates attentional stances independent of a single focal object (5–6). Alford's framework is not just the result of a taxonomist, with pretensions to totality, but of a curator, whose speculative groupings and classifications are themselves a kind of art. The book's first part, "Attending to Objects," isolates five "key coordinates" (interest, intentionality, selectivity, spatiotemporal remove, and apprehension) that combine variously to engender the four fundamental affective registers of transitive attention—contemplation, desire, recollection, and imagination—which head the subsequent chapters (28). The book's second part, "Objectless Awareness," invents a different set of coordinates to describe how poems "without a central figure or 'content'" engender the genres of experience that comprise the final four chapters (151): vigilance, resignation, idleness, and boredom.
Wallace Stevens factors in most explicitly when Alford examines poems "directed to a single focal object, in which the central action and motivation is contemplation itself" (51). In Chapter II, entitled "Contemplation: Attention's Reach," we receive an extended reading of "Study of Two Pears" that emphasizes "the failure of language to capture the fullness of perception—of vision, in particular—without resorting to metaphor and analogy" (65). Although Stevensians will not learn anything new from this reading of the dialectic between painterly abstraction and realism in...