Photo by Ben Eisenberg

Poetry as Time Travel

I was in my childhood bedroom a few nights ago and suddenly found myself startled by the moonlight falling through the curtains. I hadn’t slept in the room for years (it was my brother’s after I left for college), and was suddenly struck by how the light hadn’t really changed at all, even though I had.

I spent my childhood sleepless nights staring at those tiny triangular shadows and watching them shift across the ceiling. I wonder if, as a kid, I would have noticed them if I had been staring at a screen, which is what I do now when I can’t sleep.

When I noticed that light, an A.R. Ammons line I read my first year of college popped into my head, from his poem, “The City Limits”:

“When you consider the radiance, that it does not withhold / itself but pours its abundance without selection into / every nook and cranny not overhung or hidden.”

Recently, I spent a few weeks without Internet or phone service at an artist residency in Michigan. I realized just how much I normally fill spare and quiet moments with Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail.

In other words, there’s a million ways to make your life look good. But time speeds up when you always have something to do, even when that thing is clicking. I can spend hours on my computer and look up to darkness, never having seen the light change outside my window.

Speed is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is the acceleration of time, but it can be especially terrifying when we don’t notice how fast the minutes (or years) have gone by until our thumbs start to tire. We live in a world where it is easier to scroll instead of look.

I have been thinking about the intersection between mindfulness, which some say is the antidote to distraction, and literature. I keep coming back to poetry.

Perhaps part of the antidote to speed is slowing down enough to look backwards. I don’t mean dwelling in the past, only remembering just enough to remind ourselves of how far we have come.

In this way, poems are able to both contract and expand time. Contracting in the sense that writing something down means distilling an hour or a year or a life-time of attention, a way of forever saying, “Here. Stop. Look.”

But poems are also a way to expand time—they provide the meeting ground to re-encounter past versions of ourselves, over and over again. A.R Ammons wrote that radiance does not “withhold itself but pours its abundance without selection into every nook and cranny.” “Radiance” might as well be a synonym for attention — poems expand the hours through their attentiveness to the smallest things. By reading, we become absorbed into that attentiveness, and even after reading, carry it within us.

At a recent poetry reading, the fabulous Ocean Vuong said to a hopeful writer, “If you pay attention to the world around you, you will write.”

Poems are also a way of pressing pause, a way of pointing a finger to something as simple as the light falling through the curtains. They are preserved fragments of attention. Not only do they slow down time, they are also a way of turning it back.

That first year of college, a brilliant poetry professor told us to hang onto our Norton Anthologies. He said: “The poems will always be there for you. Someday you will need them, although right now you may not be able to know under what circumstance.”

Yesterday, I found myself paging through my old Norton Anthology to find the whole A.R. Ammons poem, my notes scrawled all over its thin pages.

As with seeing the light through the curtains, I was shocked to find the poem hadn’t changed, sure some fragment had shifted, some word had been re-arranged while I hadn’t been reading it all these years.

When I re-read the notes I wrote in the margins, I wondered if it was actually me who wrote them: beautiful near things that do not resonate, questions like, “Why this word?” when now the word ”shale” made perfect sense. The person who wrote those things felt unknown. But, re-reading, I also stumbled upon exclamation points or underlined words that had me yelling “jinx!” with my own past self.

As Joan Didion said, “We are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” I am grateful for breadcrumbs in the form of annotations.

The poems we have written, the poems we have read or are re-reading, the light we see in our childhood bedrooms: these things don’t evolve, although the lens through which we read or look does. In this way, poems are anchors, fixed points, which can be used to re-encounter our old ways of seeing the world as we circle around them.