Linda Gregg's "We Manage Most When We Manage Small"
On two years of writing about poems.
We Manage Most When We Manage Small
What things are steadfast? Not the birds.
Not the bride and groom who hurry
in their brevity to reach one another.
The stars do not blow away as we do.
The heavenly things ignite and freeze.
But not as my hair falls before you.
Fragile and momentary, we continue.
Fearing madness in all things huge
and their requiring. Managing as thin light
on water. Managing only greetings
and farewells. We love a little, as the mice
huddle, as the goat leans against my hand.
As the lovers quickening, riding time.
Making safety in the moment. This touching
home goes far. This fishing in the air.
from Too Bright to See (Graywolf Press, 1981)
Today, as I write this, it has been almost two years since I began this little newsletter of mine, on June 14th, 2020. A year ago, reflecting on a year of writing about poems, I wrote that I began this newsletter for a few reasons:
quarantine had reached its extended apex, social media — and the regularity by which I felt compelled to post — felt exhausting, and I wanted to see what might happen if I spent some quality time with poems, just by themselves.
Those reasons are the same reasons that I’ve continued to write this newsletter. The gentle solitude, the long act of attention, the attempt at noticing in a world that often distracts me and certainly exhausts me.
I wanted to offer this poem by Linda Gregg as a way to reflect on two years of writing about poems in the way that I have grown accustomed to: looking as close as I can, sometimes digressing, and nearly always veering into the subjective. I love Linda Gregg (and am thankful to Alina Pleskova, who wrote a wonderful essay about Gregg’s work earlier this year). This poem is the first poem in Linda Gregg’s first book. I love that. I love that so much. I love that a poet’s body of work might begin with a question, and a question like this:
What things are steadfast?
And I love that a poet’s body of work might begin with a poem that acknowledges its own limitation, that acknowledges vulnerability and fragility:
Fragile and momentary, we continue.
Fearing madness in all things huge
and their requiring. Managing as thin light
I was torn between two poems to write about today, between this one by Linda Gregg and Raymond Carver’s seminal “Late Fragment,” which reads, in its entirety:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
And it’s funny, because Gregg’s poem was her first, and Carver’s poem was his last, sitting on the final page of his final book, A New Path to the Waterfall, which was written while he attempted to manage the cancer that would cause his death. Viewed with this knowledge, both poems sit in conversation with one another. Gregg’s poem, in its attempts toward smallness, speaks about big things. In reminding us of our temporality — The stars do not blow away as we do — Gregg nudges us toward acknowledging what we can value. Love. Managing. Touching / home. Carver’s poem speaks instead from a place of wild universality. It is a short poem about huge things. And yet, in naming what he wants — To call myself beloved, to feel myself / beloved — Carver reminds us that such a desire is a small thing. Small not in the sense of meaningless or inconsequential. No. Small in the sense of essential. Small in the sense of something beautiful distilled into one wish.
Carver once wrote a poem for Linda Gregg, titled “Romanticism.” It reads:
The nights are very unclear here.
But if the moon is full, we know it.
We feel one thing one minute,
something else the next.
In this poem — and in both poems above — I feel both poets attempting to make sense of the seeming-largeness of the world, and not just the largeness, but all things the largeness contains that are difficult to process: dissonance, unexpected sadness, the impossibility of certainty, ongoingness, all that goes on, and as it is going on, causes pain.
And I think that’s why I am drawn to today’s poem and to Carver’s poems above. Especially today. Especially reflecting on two years of trying to be intentional about sitting down each week to think about a poem, to offer my attention towards it, to see what happens. If you’ve been reading this newsletter regularly, you’ve probably noticed that word — attention — popping up literally all the time. I wrote about such a word a year ago — and many times in between —and I’m writing again about it now. It has become an obsession of mine, mostly because, in trying to become overly conscious of offering my extended and close attention to something once a week, I’ve realized — as I go about my days — how infrequently I am in control of what I offer my attention towards. I notice my fear, my frustration, my anxiety, my distraction. And I notice my frustration at all of these frustrations. I notice, too, my desire for stillness.
The other day, in one of my last instructional classes before next week’s state exams, I gave a “Last Lecture” to my AP Language and Composition class. The title makes it seem like I give a lot of lectures, but I haven’t given a single one all year, mostly because it’s not the greatest form of pedagogy for high school teaching and also because it’s a little scary. The subject — and I’ll take a vulnerable risk and share the accompanying slides — was “Attention and Curiosity.” I made a bunch of notes for myself and gave my students little note-taking papers, and what followed were 30 of my favorite minutes of the year, made all the more special by my students’ comments and questions at the end.
The main point of the little lecture was to communicate how much I value making as many conscious decisions a day to direct your attention toward something, whatever that something may be. To have ownership of your attention. And love for it. And curiosity as both a springboard for it and an outcome of it. I wanted my students to realize (or feel seen in what they already know) that education is not really so much about making students know things or love certain things — like reading, or math-ing — but is rather about, as perhaps cliche as it seems, love. At least, this is what it should be about. It should be about love, really. It should be about learning to love, and learning that what we love can be an individual choice, even if — as our upcoming state exams make it seem — it doesn’t always feel like one. It’s hard, though, to learn such a thing within a system that is so intensely standardized and bureaucratic. It’s hard to learn to love in a world that limits not just love, but imagination.
Over the past two years, I have come to deeply value the hours I spend each week writing about a single poem because, well, I love those hours, and I love what they offer.
I love this line from Yanyi’s poem, “Detail”:
I was in love and once illuminated.
I love this critique of nationhood from Hua Xi’s poem, “Heaven”:
Loneliness is an imaginary thing,
but so is the entire country.
I love this depiction of desire in such familiar language from Mikko Harvey’s poem, “For M”:
I’m greedy —
I love the repetition of this phrase from Emily Skillings’s poem, “Bay,” and how it captures something essential about the reality we collectively live in now:
I feel a nessness
And god, I love the middle of Leon Stokesbury’s poem “Unsent Message to My Brother in His Pain,” when he writes:
The sky, it suddenly seems
important to tell you, the sky
was pink as a shell.
I love these moments and so many more, and my love for such moments has grown and grown and grown and keeps growing. And I’ve been thinking a lot about this because we — and by we, I mean people who find themselves interested in poetry — do seem to live in an ongoing moment where poems are often offered as vehicles for coping. And, sadly, there is so much coping needed! I’ve done this in the past — often, I think. I’ve posted a poem online in the wake of some collective event of pain, and have meant for the poem to serve as something — I don’t know — beneficial? Easing?
I have a harder time doing that now, perhaps because I think such an act turns a poem into something consumptive. I would never want to disavow someone’s love or need for poetry, but over the past two years, I’ve realized that what gives me joy in the midst of sorrow, or what radicalizes some previously unchallenged belief, or what calms or pacifies me is not the poem itself, but rather the time and attention spent with it. It’s this attention that feels generative, that allows me to dwell in complexity, that makes me to feel reflective or moved toward something.
In prepping for my lecture, I read Tim Hwang’s Subprime Attention Crisis. In it, he describes the “real-time bidding” (RTB) process that occurs algorithmically online to determine what ads you see when you open a webpage:
One of the most incredible aspects of the RTB system is that the entire process takes place in real time. The advertisements you see online are not predetermined. At the moment you click the link and load up the page, a signal from the ad server triggers an instantaneous auction to determine which ad will be delivered. The highest bidder gets to load its ad on the website and into your eyeballs.
This process happens at the speed of light…The entire process of putting out a request for bids, making the bids, evaluating the bids, and delivering the advertisement takes place in under a hundred milliseconds—about a quarter of the time it takes you to blink.
I had to think about that for a long time. I almost couldn’t believe that such a thing was possible. The speed, the pure automation of it. The way that, in inconceivable fragments of time, choices are being based on each of us. Data is being read, money spent. All for an individualized ad that will steal your attention away for a second or two or much more. Over and over again, on repeat.
The truth is that, these days, we don’t often decide what we pay attention to. There are bidding wars for our eyes. Bidding wars for our time. They happen so fast and so often, and have increased to such an extent that we never really got a chance to decide whether or not to take them for granted. Such things just exist as part of the fabric of the modern world. Yes, that’s the world we live in now. And the more I become aware of such a thing, the more I am inclined to draw myself inward, to — as Linda Gregg writes — “manage small.” To become “thin light / on water.” I want to value the difficult complexity and uncertainty of a world where we “feel one thing one minute, / something else the next.” Even if that’s hard. Even if it’s frustrating. Because that frustration — the frustration of humanness, of inconvenience, of dealing with who we really are rather than who we algorithmically are — feels worthwhile. It feels like time well offered.
I worry that the deeper we get into the information age and the attention economy, the more we collectively adopt the language from such things. This happens everywhere. In workplaces. In schools. We value quick fixes. We seek people who are solutions-oriented. We run the numbers. We crunch the data. We automate processes. We streamline. We look for out of the boxes thinkers but only if their out of the box thoughts fit within the concept of the business plan. What’s left behind in such a world is not just the out-of-the-ordinary, but also the ordinary. The person who wonders why we don’t move a little slower. The person who wants to look again. The person who wants to spend more time.
I wrote a year ago that a poem can be an “event of attention.” I still believe that. I believe that any form of art that anyone has spent time creating is an event of attention. The event of creation, but also the event of looking at what has been created. Of reading it, or watching it, or noticing what is small and large within it. It can’t just be about immediate feeling. It has to be about something more — letting that feeling take shape, and, in taking shape, letting it push against other feelings, ideas, certainties, uncertainties. Letting the big beating heart and mind of yourself blossom in the dwelling-with.
I feel a little bit sad writing this today because I feel — to use that old simile — like a broken record. I know, in reflecting on the past two years of these newsletters, that I say so many of the same things over and over again. That I worry the same worries. That I find — in spending time with poems — so many of the same values: attention, grace, mystery, uncertainty. But I allow myself to write into those same values so often because the world has not changed. It is the same brutal, unimaginative space — a space so filled with love and patience and compassion that continually run up against, at every turn, the machinations of power that commodify and separate and blunt us. I write about attention nearly every week because attention is an act of turning to what we love and holding it to the light and offering it to ourselves and to those we love. It is a beautiful thing, I think. It must be.
Linda Gregg writes that we are “fragile and momentary.” Those are two words that don’t fit neatly into the collective ethos of the modern world. But they are words to cherish. They are words to cherish because our fragility and temporality are things that are preyed upon by the world. We are marketed so many things — in those infinitesimally small moments of time it takes a webpage to load — that promise a longer life, one lived in the moment. But I wonder instead about moving towards those two words rather than away from them. I wonder about turning toward my fragility and holding it close, instead of the opposite. It’s a shame that it sometimes takes a whole life to realize no, actually what I want is something so essential and so small that it is basically the same thing as light, which is the same thing as love. It sometimes takes the real awareness of your own fragility to small home that is called love, and the big windows and doors within it that let others come inside.
Two years of writing about poems has not made me a better person. It has not made me anything that is easily packaged and advertised and sold. But it has made me value the sitting down. The stillness. The attention offered toward something that has been offered attention in its making. I don’t know how long I’ll keep doing this. Maybe a few more weeks, maybe another year. I write poems less now. Most days the work of life and the work of work tamps down the gentle rise of the imagination. But as I write this, I am listening to the soundtrack from the movie C’mon C’mon. It is beautiful and gentle. My fiddle leaf fig — given to me by my friend George — has grown two new shiny leaves. It has lost, over the course of last year, more than a few others. This happens. The world goes on, and what lives within it is fragile and is certainly momentary. And our attention is the same way, too. It is fragile, easily distracted, and definitely exhaustible.
Today, I hope you notice something and find yourself looking at it for the longest time. And because of that looking, I hope you find love, or peace, or whatever you need that maybe you didn’t know you need. This is why I love those qualifiers in Raymond Carver’s “Late Fragment.” I love how he writes to feel myself / beloved. When we make some little mess of attention in this big mess of the world, when we make our art and offer it out, and when someone walks into the tiny home of love or fear or anxiety that we have created, when they touch the walls and admire the paint and see the shadows cast on the floor by the light streaming through the windows, when they ask questions borne out of generosity, when they dwell within our event of attention, thus creating their own event of attention — when those acts of attention merge, when one person meets another person in this way, and then another, and then another, what is that if not love? We might not call it love, but it is love. It has to be.