The Art of Concentration

Great art requires concentration from the artist, and demands concentration from those experiencing it. Artists concentrate their minds and energies for years in order to compose, paint, write or otherwise create work that reveals unusual sensitivity and mastery. Artists tend to have the talent and training to experience ‘flow’ or be ‘in the zone’. Education teaches concentration. Self-control is often said to improve your long-term career prospects (think of the Marshmallow Test). Concentrating fully on a single task is often more difficult than multitasking: it requires the whole body to move towards a single goal.

Literature demands and rewards concentration too. I was asked to talk about the following passage from George Eliot’s Middlemarch (Chapter 20) in an admissions interview at Cambridge. In what I now (but not then) understand as a deep, almost mystical insight into concentration, the narrator says that ‘keen vision and feeling’ allow you to push at the horizons of reality, to experience the world more fully:

That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.


Looking for Hollow Faces

A philosophical opinion piece called ‘Do Thrifty Minds Make Better Brains?’ by Andy Clark, a professor of logic and metaphysics at Edinburgh, relates how our thrifty minds conserve energy and activity by being ‘engines of prediction’. He draws on research in neuroscience to argue that we amass a bank of stored images that replace (and sometimes cancel out) new sensory data about phenomena we’ve seen before. The mind uses its existing knowledge to avoid having to process everything that confronts us as though new; instead, the brain registers anomalies from the expectations it has created: ‘What is marked and passed forward in the brain’s flow of processing are the divergences from predicted states: divergences that may be used to demand more information at those very specific points, or to guide remedial action.’

Even at this point, Clark’s argument rings many literary bells for me (e.g. George Eliot (such as the squirrel’s heart-beat line I’ve mentioned before); or T.S. Eliot’s ‘Humankind cannot bear very much reality’, given an explicitly Christian reading here—there are religious ideas lurking near these arguments). Clark also alludes to possible literary applications when he meditates on the idea that perception and imagination are linked activities:

[P]erception (at least of this stripe) now looks to be deeply linked to something not unlike imagination. For insofar as a creature can indeed predict its own sensory inputs from the “top down,” [i.e. is knowledge-driven] such a creature is well positioned to engage in familiar (though perhaps otherwise deeply puzzling) activities like dreaming and some kind of free-floating imagining. These would occur when the constraining sensory input is switched off, by closing down the sensors, leaving the system free to be driven purely from the top down. We should not suppose that all creatures deploying this strategy can engage in the kinds of self-conscious deliberate imagining that we do. Self-conscious deliberate imagining may well require substantial additional innovations, like the use of language as a means of self-cuing. But where we find perception working in this way, we may expect an interior mental life of a fairly rich stripe, replete with dreams and free-floating episodes of mental imagery.

Clark uses the example of the hollow-face illusion, which is much more easily appreciated by watching the video attached to his article than by explanation. In essence, Clark takes this famous illusion (it turned up in the Royal Institute Christmas Lectures this year, with Einstein’s head instead of Chaplin’s) as a good example of how the mind’s activity affects our perception: we always see the rounded face because the idea of a hollow face is so foreign to us that we reject the incoming sensory data, and plump for a fictional, illusory perception.

The article doesn’t actually specify any view about what literature or the arts involve, but I do find a set of productively disagreeable implications (which I stress are not made in the article) that could grow out of it. If you were to define an artist as someone with ‘an interior mental life of a fairly rich stripe, replete with dreams and free-floating episodes of mental imagery’, in short someone wildly imaginative, then you might be led to think that arty types love to play with fictions and deal with counter-factuals. In this view the artist toys with reality and lets the mind run free. Clark’s line about ‘use of language as a means of self-cuing’ could imply that poetry is a literary form that encourages the mind to engage in such creative, associative play. The creative mind makes its own false rounded faces and indulges its fantasties.

This sounds reasonable enough, and there may be something in it. But I also disagree that this provides anything like an approximation of what artistic contemplation and creation may accomplish. For a start, this state only occurs when ‘the constraining sensory input is switched off, by closing down the sensors’, so you can forget any naturalistic observation, and this also shuts down any social engagement in the relevant art: Clark refers elsewhere to how our imagination stores prejudices. In fact, I think this model of artistic creation as unplugged from reality and left to engage in play is positively immoral because it would define artistic creation as the reorganization of false certainties, severed from truth, and unwilling to participate in the world.

When I watch the hollow-face illusion, I try to convince my mind to discard its illusion and to see the hollow face that’s really there. I do this in vain– but I don’t want to settle for the illusion. Similarly, I would always pick the blue pill in the world of the Matrix. Likewise, many great artists are intensely curious and inquisitive people who also don’t want to accept fictions, but want to use their imagination to re-route the mind so that it can see what’s there more clearly. There are many ways to try to see the hollow face, such as to observe it as closely as possible (realism), or to realize that the mask you see has a deeper meaning, i.e. a hollow face (symbolism).

I’ve been reading Wallace Stevens and his early critics recently, and there is a great deal of pertinent material to draw on here. Stevens has been seen as the ‘poet of consciousness’ par excellence. Here is verse about how a singer who ‘sang beyond the genius of the sea’ fashions her world through her singing:

It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made. (The Idea of Order at Key West)

The singer’s voice creates her world, parallel to the world as it is, but still a beautiful fiction. The actual sea is as inaccessible as the hollow face. Stevens’ poem may seem to go against my argument, because he explores the impossibility of seeing or singing the sea as it is. But his poetry can be read as an exploration of how we reach and deal with this limitations, as human beings. He writes elsewhere that ‘I thought we had reached a point at which we could no longer believe in anything unless we recognized that it was a fiction [….] there are fictions that are extensions of reality [….] Heaven is an extension of reality’ (letter to Henry Church, 8 December 1942) and that ‘[poetic] truth is an agreement with reality, brought about by the imagination of a man strongly disposed to be influenced by his imagination, which he believes, for a time, to be true’ (‘Figure of the Youth as Virile Poet’). These are the serious thoughts of a man engaged in the world, not someone withdrawing to a domain of happy fancy.

For Stevens here the imagination is an instrument used to reach towards truth once we know that it is unreachable: there are necessary fictions. There is mystery on the land and in the seas. In his poetry Stevens uses language to test out these limitations, and to discover the point where the mind stops us from seeing more clearly. I doubt Stevens could have seen the hollow face either, but his poetry doesn’t just mess around with versions of the illusory rounded face either—his poetry is not divorced from the understanding, despite Yvor Winters’ view that Stevens gives us ‘the most perfect laboratory of hedonism to be found in literature [….] his ideas have remained essentially unchanged for more than a quarter of a century’. His poetry, and other poetry, is a different type of laboratory: once conducting advanced experiments in how we build our sense of reality, aware that any such investigations cannot ignore the fallibility of the investigator. The imagination can do more than juggle prejudices and preconceptions into new forms: it can help us to dabble in reality and try to see hollow faces.

The –––– Teller

Had but the Tale a –––– Teller –
All the Boys would come –

What’s the missing word? The couplet is taken from an Emily Dickinson poem (‘The Bible is an antique Volume’, Johnson 1545; Franklin 1577] that Helen Vendler discusses in her 2010 book Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries(pp. 491-95).

Vendler has seen a draft of the poem, and writes that Dickinson was dissatisfied with her first choice, ‘thrilling’. So the poet launched ‘into a verbal extravaganza of thirteen different alternative adjectives, each a possible characterization of the Teller’: ‘typic’, ‘hearty’, ‘bonnie’, ‘breathless’, ‘spacious’, ‘tropic’, ‘warbling’, ‘ardent’, ‘friendly’, ‘magic’, ‘pungent’, ‘winning’ and ‘mellow’.

According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge ‘prose = words in their best order; poetry = the best words in their best order.’ For Coleridge a poem was a composition in which changing even a single word would alter its meaning. Reading closely requires an inner ear fine-tuned to hear quiet sounds and whispers, subtle distinctions and emphases. And this example from Dickinson’s poetry shows someone who is able to suspend judgement, and wait patiently until exactly the right word comes to mind. The process reveals an acutely sensitive, fertile mind.

One reason to study literature is to train the mind to read and listen in newly attentive ways. Poetry demands concentration. Equally, poetry is not just something to prod at and dissect dispassionately. Here’s Philip Larkin from a Paris Review interview:

‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn.’


(Dickinson selected the word ‘warbling’: ‘Had but the Tale a warbling Teller – | All the Boys would come -‘)

Dove Cottage

Dove Cottage is where William Wordsworth lived for eight years and wrote some of his most celebrated poetry. I went on a guided tour there during a trip to the Lake District last week, and was shown where William, Mary (his wife) and Dorothy (his journal-writing sister) lived, ate, slept and brought up children; in Wordsworth’s garden I sat and enjoyed the same views over Grasmere that he did (with an additional set of grey houses and some diggers); in the adjoining Wordsworth Museum I viewed manuscripts of The Prelude through glass (see the Digital Wordsworth resource for some examples); in the Gift Shop I could choose from a library of Wordsworth editions to take home.

I told a computerized visitor survey that my visit was ‘for leisure’. Nonetheless, the day-trip will inevitably affect how I read Wordsworth’s verse in future—to a point. I know more about the conditions in which Wordsworth wrote, but this understanding doesn’t make me any more sensitive to the thematic resonances of his poetry. His work is, among other things, about landscape, nature and the imagination: Wordsworth wasn’t completing a commission for the Lake District tourist board (though he did also write a guide to the Lakes). The knowledge I gained about Wordsworth’s poetry was valuable, but inessential.

You might reasonably ask, though, whether reading Wordsworth’s poetry is primarily a leisure activity, and therefore not something that needs to be studied in school. In other words: read Wordsworth if that’s your idea of fun, but don’t confuse it with proper work or study. Dove Cottage does indeed perform a variety of educational and cultural duties: in addition to preserving a Grade I listed building and promoting Wordsworth’s works, it is a centre for contemporary poetry and does lots of outreach work. Most visitors to Dove Cottage travel there, as I did, for a stimulating leisure activity. You might also wonder why we need professional scholars to devote their energies to Wordsworth’s poetry, when the Cottage and Museum’s curators are well-placed to protect Wordsworth’s legacy.

The soft answer to these questions (and a common one) is that Wordsworth forms part of the British cultural consciousness, and so wouldn’t it be a terrible thing if the next generation didn’t know ‘Daffodils‘? An alternative, stronger answer is that studying Wordsworth’s works, rather than just reading them, does not just transmit a time-worn appreciation of his poetry and its literary historical importance, but challenges us to respond anew to the poet, and push ourselves to read more closely and intently. Scholars are at the vanguard of this effort, since they expose blind-spots in previous interpretations, explore new connections and contextual information, and bring Wordsworth studies into line with the latest methodological developments.

The difference between studying and reading can be measured in the time and attention given to the activity. The additional concentration required when studying a poet (whether a researcher or GCSE student) is qualitatively different from having an amateur interest, and this is why it’s important to support this additional expenditure of energy in classrooms and research libraries.

I’d recommend a visit to Dove Cottage without hesitation. Beyond being tourist attraction, the Cottage has links with schools and professional scholars that are important to fulfilling its mission. The Cottage is a precious supplement to full-time education, but it is a different type of institution. Recreational activities—visiting a museum, watching a documentary or reading poetry before going to bed—are nourishing and important. But these pastimes have less intensity and mind-strengthening capacity than being made to pore over literature. Dove Cottage sparks enthusiasm to immerse yourself in the Wordsworths’ poetry and journals, but you don’t need to visit in order to appreciate or engage deeply with them.