As I was working over my recent poems I became more aware than ever that they arise from the simple act of paying attention. If I’m asked again about what enables me to write my poetry, I will start and end with saying “pay attention.” No matter how good or bad your hearing, touch or eyesight is, pay attention to whatever they are revealing about the world without and within you.
Paying attention is, in a way, much easier when you are out in the desert, as we were in (New) Mexico, because there are fewer demands, it seems, on your senses. You can open up to the little that there seems to be around you, only to find that there is more than you ever imagined. Moreover, the so-called wilderness gives you sensory space to pay attention to what is inside you. This is surely one reason that people have gone out into the desert to be closer to more ultimate realities—still small voices, burning bushes, beatific visions.
Or else they have gone on a long walk through unfamiliar territory, unshackled from daily routines, voices, sights, and obligations. They take what we often call a pilgrimage. Around here, they decide to walk the Appalachian Trail, all 2,060 miles of it. And then some of them write a book about it. While we were out in desert country Sylvia and I read each day from my friend Newton Smith’s new collection of poems written while he was on the Camino de Santiago de Frances, the famous route to Santiago de Campostelo in northern Spain and Basque country. It’s called Camino Poems (Argura Press, 2016).
Each day, each poem, was simply an exercise in paying attention—to stones, flowers, strangers, birds. And yes, to fatigue, pain, awe, and gratitude. It became a daily reading. We were able to walk with Newt and pay attention, though we had no blisters and sore knees to focus our attention even more.
We live in a society of distractions. Paying attention, like mindfulness, is harder than ever. Maybe that is why our public conversations are so frazzled by the lies and spin of other voices. Images flood our vision in airports, lounges, hotels, and even in our doctors’ offices. We can’t pay attention to the rusted machines that would tell us our failure, the sign held out beside the stoplight asking for a job, the sparrows that return to build their nest again within the downspout’s bend. Or, indeed, to pay attention to our dreams, a mason’s careful stonework on a wall, the wan smile of a waitress as you thank her for her help.
I know there’s more—how we think about this thing we’ve paid attention to, what treasury of images we bring to its side, how we match it up with the music of our words, the accents, cadence and the onomatopoeia of our language. But it’s the act of paying attention that is the spirituality of poetry, its soul, what makes it start and run. Books like Camino Poems help lead us into that life. I tell you, it would be a good place to start. Even without the blisters.