The Art of Distraction
So often, when our attention spans aren’t what we’d like them to be (a possible side effect of living in cities, according to this new study, we get to feeling down about ourselves: If I hadn’t gone down that Facebook rabbit hole I could’ve…If I wasn’t dreaming about the future I could’ve…insert your daily/hourly/yearly ambitions here. Of course, it is beneficial to live as presently as possible, and to achieve self-set goals, but the truth is, there’s a lot we can learn from how we distract ourselves and why, and poems—in both form and content—can reflect the many “useless” tangents our actions and thoughts take us on. It is vital to accept that we’re human, not robot (yet), and as such, need to press the refresh button from time to time—meaning, we need to take a break. And a break in anything can lead to a new possibility.
My argument is this: finding yourself “lost in thought,” taking a long, unplanned walk/run/yoga jaunt/ice cream trip/bar crawl, or simply watching a few too many episodes of Homeland, is a necessary reset and absolutely essential to creative thought because these departures from routine and acts of self-kindness leave new brain space open to be filled by your imagination, foster unusual or out-of-the-ordinary experiences, and forge connections between unlike things… all of which result in creating and thinking more effectively and epically either during these flights of fancy or when you return from them. So let’s pour one out for distraction…and the freedom (from the strict, hard road of our work and our own expectations) it can imply. Here are some poems which illustrate what I’m talking about:
1. Excerpt from the poem “Invidious Comparison,” out of the wonderful book Figment by Rebecca Wolff:
Don’t ask me what I’m doing.
I’m thinking it’s only this beautiful
here. Now my body is made of long-standing
spirituality, by nature benign. Don’t laugh: I’m a
Lotus-flower Gentle Sitting-still Woman.
And another paradigm slips into
place like the diamond it
sounds like. I’m no go-getter—
what am I after all but a
For the entirety of Wolff’s book, actually, one feels that she’s on a raft floating somewhere between the shores of Overstimulated Short Attention Span and Genius, Laser-Beam Language Focus. Surrounding her raft are ghosts and anxieties and songs and harsh voices and a few gentle ones, constantly coaxing her into hitherto unknown swirling eddies.
This particular excerpt from “Invidious Comparison” gets across the speaker’s desire for and simultaneous discomfort with the Eastern idea of being present and accepting one’s tiny, powerless place in the large, unknowable universe. The poem begins with the speaker observing “Fat kids of the South/with early breasts/in the swimming pool outside,” an unlikely seed for the self-aware, Buddhist tendency of the poem that follows—but not coincidental, incidental, or irrelevant to my point. The speaker’s deep awareness and entry into her own fears and desires would not be possible without and is directly correlated to her experience of an out-of-the-ordinary scene (for her)—a distraction.
2. From Adrienne Rich’s “Images for Godard”:
5. Interior monologue of the poet:
the notes for the poem are the only poem
the mind collecting, devouring
all these destructibles
the unmade studio couch the air
shifting the abalone shells
the mind of the poet is the only poem
the poet is at the movies
dreaming the film-maker’s dream but differently
free in the dark as if asleep
free in the dusty beam of the projector
the mind of the poet is changing
the moment of change is the only poem
See? Even one of the all-time best poets went to the movies! So relax! But on a more serious note: you are always gathering information. Whether consciously or unconsciously, you are constantly “devouring all these destructibles.” Remember that, to process and put together in your own unique way all that you’ve seen, felt, experienced, you need rest. You need to feel “free in the dark as if asleep”—so that you can change. So that you can affect change in your life.
3. This poem is called “Just Vanilla,” and is from Meme by Susan Wheeler, 2012 National Book Award Finalist. Mary Jo Bang describes Meme as a book-length traditional elegy which “dissolves into excited bursts of imitated idiomatic speech interwoven with writing from a different register—the coolly removed, self-insightful lyric.”
She was a pistol. And he—remember him, Ray?—Ray thought
he was too big for his britches. She was full of herself too but it was
Colin who wanted to live high on the hog.
Your father thought she was pretty spiffy.
In the garden the burdensome riot unfurls in the
heat, in sun, in shade, while you lie on the bench
in a sweat.
Well, they went bloody blue blazes through their last dollar before
you could say boo.
In this poem, a woman—assumedly the speaker’s mother—addresses her husband, the speaker’s father, while the speaker does some stellar eavesdropping for us. The poem unfurls itself in the mother’s voice until the third stanza, which seems to crash land us directly in the speaker’s psyche. She has detached herself by distracting herself by dreaming inside herself, and in doing so has begun to forge her own, distinct identity—no matter the surrounding cacophony and resulting pressures invoke