Monday, April 15, 2013

Paying attention


In he current issue of Poetry, I came across this quote from the poet Frank O'Hara: "Don't be bored, don't be lazy, don't be trivial, and don't be proud. The slightest loss of attention leads to death." It gave me something to muse on as I was walking home.

O'Hara was something of a jack of all trades, including booze and sex. He might have been a painter or a musician, but we know him as a poet, for a more or less lifelong stream of consciousness. He is not a poet to my taste, but then the New York art scene of the 1950s and 1960s is about as remote from my experience as anything is likely to get. I read O'Hara for the same reason I read, say, Patti Smith's Just Kids (which is, by the way, a great little book).

But back to the quote, which struck a late-life note.

Am I bored? After 40 years of keeping half-a-dozen balls in the air, eighteen hours a day, I now seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time napping on the couch.

Ditto lazy.

Blogging is a trivial activity, at least by comparison with my former activities. It is certainly self-indulgent, and leaves lots of time for napping.

Proud? If by proud O'Hara means "self-satisfied," then I'm less proud than I used to be. The itch of ego is apparently napping too.

Three feet in the grave?

Now we get to the gist of it. The first commandment of art and life: Pay attention. The slightest loss leads to death, say O'Hara. Or at least to ever longer naps.

"It is not easy to live in that continuous awareness of things which alone is true living," wrote the naturalist Joseph Wood Krutch, anticipating O'Hara. But I try. To pay attention. To see. To listen. To walk, not drive. To keep the ear buds out of my ears. To keep my glasses clean. To notice and to make note. Which is what I've been doing all of my life. Which is what I'm doing here.

O'Hara, by he way, died young, aged 40, when he was run over by a dune buggy while sleeping on the beach at Fire Island.