For What They Are

November 18, 2007 at 7:51 pm | Posted in attention, love, modernism, poetry | 5 Comments

I realize I’ve said “I’m back for real” a couple of different times now, but this time I think I mean it: I’m back for real. The past few months have been consumed by studying for and taking my Ph.D. qualifying exams, and now that I’ve passed them I am not only much more free to blog but I also have a large backlog of thoughts about poetry that need articulating. So, I hope you’ll welcome me back into your arms and RSS readers as I work through some of this stuff.

As you may remember, a few months ago I promised to write a post on Robert Frost. Now, my primary sympathies as a reader and a scholar are for avant-garde poetry. I had a roommate at summer camp when I was fifteen who loved Frost and read him out loud to me, and behind her back I used to cite this along with her playing the bassoon and preferring math problems to Friday night dances as evidence of her incurable boringness. But my “Twentieth Century American Poetry” exam list included both the raw and the cooked, and I’ve started to see more in the century’s more “traditional” poetry than I used to.

When I made that promise, I was thinking of a poem by Frost called “Hyla Brook” that is particularly relevant to the issues I was exploring in my previous post regarding D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love and the trip back east that I had just taken. The question at hand, to put it plainly, was: given that everything is ever-changing and that other people will never be fully known to us, must we reconcile ourselves to loving phantoms and fantasies? Here’s the poem:

Hyla Brook
by Robert Frost

By June our brook’s run out of song and speed.
Sought for much after that, it will be found
Either to have gone groping underground
(And taken with it all the Hyla breed
That shouted in the mist a month ago,
Like ghost of sleigh bells in a ghost of snow) –
Or flourished and come up in jewelweed,
Weak foliage that is blown upon and bent,
Even against the way its waters went.
Its bed is left a faded paper sheet
Of dead leaves stuck together by the heat –
A brook to none but who remember long.
This as it will be seen is other far
Than with brooks taken otherwhere in song.
We love the things we love for what they are.

The Hyla is a kind of tree frog, but it’s also worth noting that in Greek mythology, Hylas was the Argonaut who was lured into the water by the water nymphs and disappeared without a trace. Here, the brook itself disappears — it dries up so thoroughly that it is not even properly a brook anymore. Only those “who remember long” would refer to it that way; a newcomer would see not a brook, but simply a swath of jewelweed.

The last four lines make it clear that we are not just talking about brooks here. The poem is in fact a criticism directed against “songs” that take brooks “otherwhere” — in other words, against poetry that idealizes, romanticizes, and immortalizes. Against this kind of “song,” the speaker affirms a love that is realistic, that is in the present tense, and most importantly, that is attentive. The speaker, unlike those other songsters, loves the brook even when it’s not a brook. It’s true that he sees the past in the present (he remembers the frogs, and how even they called to mind the earlier snows), but this is not the same as portraying the brook at the height of its babbling ecstasy as though its Platonic form were the only one that mattered.

Frost is the beginning of what I’m coming to think of as an aesthetic practice of humble attention in a certain tradition of American poetry in the 20th century. Frost inherits his rural persona and natural settings from Whitman and also from the British Romantics, but he rejects their excesses as sentimental and instead crafts verse that is variously described as “stern,” “reticent,” and, well, “boring.” In the series of posts I wrote this spring on Simone Weil and Georges Bataille, I explored the ethics of attention — I claimed that for Weil, attention to others (and the associated self-emptying) was a necessary first step for ethical action, while for Bataille, attention to the realities of one’s contradictory self was that necessary step. In the series I am starting today, I plan to examine the aesthetics of attention — how is attention figured by poets, and to what ends? Why is it so often accompanied by stoicism — that is, by a suppression of affect? And why, ultimately, should we care?

One reason to care is that attention is the way out of the problem posed by the ever-changing world and its “sealed” inhabitants, to use Virginia Woolf’s word (from To the Lighthouse). In order to love the things we love for what they are, we must be outward-turning, we must be generous, we must pay attention.


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  1. Very nice. A great poet to look at in this fashion might be W. C. Williams (one of my favorites). I’ve always felt that his life as a small-town doctor who just happened to also be a great poet give his work something more, well, genuine. He often recognizes his role as observer, and comments on the separation from others brought by the act of writing; in turn, in my opinion, he compensates for this in his sensibility and his attention towards the external world. Blah – anyway, interesting reading.

  2. Glad you’re back! Wish I could say the same for myself. Instead, I’m condemned to haunt the comment fields of other blogs…

    Anyway, I enjoyed this post, and your reading mostly makes sense. One thing that confuses me, at a glance, is the weird use of tense in the poem. Even (and especially) in the last line which is the cornerstone of your reading, tense is confusing, and you run into a bit of trouble with it yourself when you say that he “loves the brook even when it’s not a brook,” but then have to acknowledge that this is only because he “sees the past in the present.” Frost is obviously confused himself given the the poem is structured around an “either.”

    To explain: when I read “We love the things we love for what they are” in the context of your post, I can’t help wondering what “they are,” even after the careful reconstruction of the scene in your reading. I can picture the scene – the jewelweed, the dead leaves stuck together by the heat, blown upon and bent, etc. Is this scene, itself, what Frost loves, without needing to call it a brook? Is “being” here determined as presence to vision, as what can be seen, as those objects available to attention? Or is it still a brook that Frost loves, an unseen brook, gone groping underground, a brook the will be found, that can be restored to presence by attention; or the metaphorical brook signified by the motion of leaves “even against the way its water went”? Is “the thing” here, that Frost loves, mere sign, mere letter, the trace, etc. or does it retain the signifying function of evoking the “past in the present” as you say? In either case it isn’t, I agree, the original brook, the brook “taken otherwise in song.” But what is it?

    The reason I call this a problem of tense is that I tried to resolve the issue by going back to the poem and looking at Frost’s use of the verb “to be” to see what predicates he does attach to this thing that he’s attending to that is either a brook or not or brook. In the first line, the brook “is run out of song,” which is to say, it “is” in the mode of no longer being something. The second sentence shifts to future anterior – it will be found to have gone groping and flourished in foliage that is bent. This last “is” is particularly interesting, because it’s written within the future anterior clause – it will have been something that is. Then we have “is left” and finally “this as it will be seen is.” This last one is tricky because the “as” can either be read to modify “is” (as in “this is as it will be seen” – it’s being is determined by how it will be seen, again in the future anterior) or to modify the whole sentence (as in, “it will be seen that this is…” – being already determined in advance of its being seen, it will be seen to be what it already is, whereas now it already is what it is, but is not yet seen to be so). The shifting network of tenses seems to defer any attribution of a pure presence to the scene/the seen. The thing “is” only in the mode of no longer being what it was and not yet being what it is. But at various moments, the poem also tentatively holds out, without any certainty, the prospects of claiming these remainders and futures as presences: in the second reading of “this, as it will be seen, is,” for example, the possibility that it also already is, in an unseen manner, something; or in the “foliage is blown” which marks a present (“is”) within the future anterior (will be found to have gone).

    In either case you’re right to say that it isn’t the brook “at the height of its babbling ecstasy as though its Platonic form were the only one that mattered,” the “brooks taken otherwhere in song,” the originary presence that’s loved, but it’s much tougher to say whether the thing is still loved in its capacity to evoke the originary presence, or as something that has ceased to signify. (sort of a similar question to Keats’s “What little town?” in Grecian Urn). What makes Frost’s attention so interesting to me, then, is that it’s insufficient or aporetic: attending to the scene results in even less certainty about what is seen and what is loved (does he love the sight or does he love that it no longer is was it was, or that it will no longer have been what it is?). This uncertainty explains his distaste for brooks “taken otherwhere in song” since song would have the capacity to constitute the past object as a definite thing, but it also in a certain allows for a reinvigoration of the love for the past river (outside of the sort of song he condemns), knowing now that it was always going to have no longer been what it was. The brooks taken otherwhere in song, then, are only “other” than the “present” “brook” because the song takes them somewhere, constitutes them as a definite thing, whereas attention splits them into an infinity of conflicting tenses that do or do not converge in a present.

    You might get somewhere out of considering the etymological relationship between attention and tense in this respect. I’m also interested in the fact that you call this the “beginning” of this practice of humble attention. Obvious, in chronological terms this seems supportable. But is it the beginning in another sense? Is it the still unformed, aporetic project which will be refined and resolved into something determinate in the future of the tradition, or is it, in a certain sense, the end, the place where the ultimate irresolvable aporicity is laid bare only to be covered over by an attention that thinks itself more and more refined because it thinks it knows what it’s looking at?

    I’ve probably left a lot unsaid here and it’s probably very unclear, but I thought you’d still appreciate this little intervention.

  3. Welcome back!

  4. drobbins — Welcome, and thanks for reading! Williams is definitely an important figure in the evolution of this aesthetic in the 20th C, not least because so many later poets claim him as a pivotal influence. To tip my hand a bit, I’m going to look more at Frost and then at Stevens, but Williams is likely to be covered here as well.

    surlacarte — Thanks for this thoughtful (attentive!) response. I completely agree that what’s interesting about the speaker’s attention is that it results in uncertainty about the thing attended to, and your reading of the verb tenses provides a helpful complement to the fairly cursory reading I did in this post. I’m particularly interested in the way that fully half the poem is embedded in a clause describing the way that the book “will be found” — not only, as you point out, does this create some uncertainty about to what degree the brook exists when it has dried up (and to what degree it “will be” imaginatively recovered by the observer), but the passive voice points to the necessity of an observer without specifying that any observer actually exists. Presumably the speaker has seen the brook go through this transformation himself, but it is by no means certain that the scene is present to him when he is speaking.

    Re: your closing remarks, calling this the “beginning” of an American aesthetics of attention is admittedly pretty arbitrary. The “American” part is important, because to my knowledge it was Wordsworth who first said that a poet ought to go out into the world and look at stuff (or rather, who first explicitly made that into a poetic project), though I would argue that his emphasis on “emotion recollected in tranquility” mutes the purported aesthetics of presence of his project. But Frost is the first American that I see really engaging with this impulse — Whitman is certainly engaged with nature & the outside world, but his attention is directed inwardly at least as much as it is directed outwardly. But your suggestion about this being a “beginning” in the sense of being unformed & aporetic is an interesting one. I think that “real” attention will always lead to these kind of aporias, because if you are really in the present you are always beginning. Part of paying attention has to be resisting the impulse to synthesize & systematize; once you do those things you are abstracting away from the moment. But of course we can’t help but do those things! And it might even be argued that an attentive practice that is responsible to its object has to synthesize & systematize; a person can’t remain just an elbow and a nose and a mouth, and an argument can’t remain just statement A and statement B and statement C. So I think the demands of attention are always contradictory, which is what makes it so interesting to me. Hopefully my forthcoming discussions of the ways it’s presented aesthetically will answer your question about the degree to which these contradictions can be preserved when we try to write about attention &/or to write attentively.

    eeink — Thanks! I’ll update my blogroll to reflect your blog’s new location (& its new affiliated project) in just a moment.

  5. Thanks for the response. I’ll look forward to the follow up posts.

    One quick thing that just occurred to me (I’m reading Hugh Silverman’s Textualities: Between Hermeneutics and Deconstruction and he’s talking about descriptive phenomenology alongside Frost’s “Two Roads”) is that this tradition of attention sounds a lot like the phenomenological reduction. In particular, he mentioned Sartre’s Nausea and it seemed like an appropriate point of comparison. Then of course there’s the way descriptive phenomenology gets developed by the Nouveau Roman – actually, the grammatical complexity of “Hyla Brooks” reminds me a lot of someone like Claude Simon (haven’t gotten to the rest of the Nouveau Roman stuff on my lists, so I can’t say yet if this is generalizable).

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