Whatever the advantages of the internet and the many technologies we use to leverage it, there is growing evidence that we are paying a price in distraction and in neurological changes that are affecting our ability to concentrate, to follow lengthy arguments – and perhaps even to empathize with each other.” – Bryan Walpert, Poetry and Mindfulness.
One response to this has been a resurgence in popularity, in the West, of mindfulness training. In Poetry and Mindfulness: Interruption to a Journey, Bryan Walpert sets out to explore this “counter-tendency towards focus and attention” through the lens of poetry. Walpert, himself a highly regarded poet, is Associate Professor at the School of English and Media Studies at Massey University’s Auckland campus. His book is an eloquent argument for the “natural fit” of poetry and mindfulness, and by extension for the relevance of poetry – indeed, for the importance of the arts and humanities as antidotes to the toxicities of ‘click, click’ living.
Walpert explains mindfulness (often practised in the form of meditation) as a state of “sustained – and to some extent non-judgmental – attention to the present moment.” He outlines the history of mindfulness, from Buddhist origins 2,500 years ago to its much more recent introduction, in the 1960s, to the West, where it has often been the focus of scientific investigation. Walpert quotes the findings of Harvard professor Dr Ellen Langer, for example, to the effect that “actively paying attention can reduce the effects of aging.”
Like meditation, poetry nourishes “a sense of presence”, demanding attention to the poem’s sounds, rhythm and imagery; awakening the senses; reconnecting the reader to the self and the body (especially to the pulse and breath). Poetry also connects the reader to other people’s minds and hearts, and to the natural world. Poetry is patterned language, and since patterns are all about relationship, so too are poems. Walpert, in his chapter “Mindfulness, Mindlessness, Poetry”, writes:
The more we read and study lyric poetry, the more we are encouraged by the nature of that genre to attend to the present, to interrogate the self, to appreciate nuance and ambiguity, and to engage with context and interconnections – the more, in other words, we see ourselves, the world, and the links between them as more complex and therefore worthy of more complex attention and interaction.”
That statement refers to lyric poetry, but is at the heart of Walpert’s argument for the importance of all kinds of poetry. Nuance, ambiguity, context and interconnections: these qualities of the most interesting poems are the most interesting – and challenging – qualities of life itself. The language of poetry is (whatever else it also is – lyric, fractal, ode or ballad) the language of attention.
Throughout the book, Walpert references recent studies supporting the idea that reading poetry can improve the quality and length of attention, and help develop compassion. That’s not news for those of us who read, write, study and/or teach poetry, but (sad to say) it is undoubtedly helpful, in a what’s-the-use-of-studying-the-humanities era, to be able to drag in the science to save the art. Yet really, what Walpert does so beautifully in this book is use the art to save the art. His expertise as a literary scholar is to the fore. He walks the reader through examples of very different poetry styles, and with each reveals just how poetry challenges notions of self and ‘other’, fosters interconnections and rejuvenates our attention to the world. It is this that opens the way to myriad real-life personal, social, economic and ecological benefits.
Studying poetry – as a reader or writer – is, like mindfulness, a means of developing certain mental muscles. Poetry requires on several different levels the kind of attention the mindless trends in our society discourage.”
Sue Wootton is co-editor of Corpus.
Poetry and Mindfulness: Interruption to a Journey by Bryan Walpert is published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.