I worried that the culture would succumb to this stultification and I wouldn’t be immune. Thus, my self-prescribed daily dose of poetry to sharpen the faculties that stare at the world. I would read to bulwark my attention against the assault waged by my phone.
On the 17th day of the year, the poet Mary Oliver died, and I pulled her books from the shelf. Her oeuvre became my morning ritual—and because she wrote with directness, the windowpane clarity achieved when a writer aims to persuade, I found myself reading many pages at a time. There were poems I knew, the ones recited at weddings or quoted on yearbook pages (“Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?”). But this was the first time I had read Oliver beyond her hits. Her books had tumbled into my arms at the right moment. Her collected works amount to an instruction manual for how to focus the gaze. The exhortations that filled her poems became my command: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”
In the age of surveillance capitalism, the biggest corporations redirect the gaze, exploiting the psyche’s vulnerabilities for profit. Even silenced phones light up with notifications that break eye contact and disrupt concentration. YouTube plays videos in an endless loop, queued on the basis of intimate data, so that the emotional rush of one clip stokes the desire to watch the next. Facebook, the ultimate manipulation machine, arrays information to exploit the psychic weaknesses of users, with the intent of keeping them on its site for as long as it can. The hand touches the phone upon waking, even before it can rub the eye or reach across the bed to wake the spouse.
While society has grown a little wiser to how the technologies can be exploited by foreign governments and boiler rooms spewing misinformation, the costs of allowing our attention to be commandeered remain drastically understated. It was not Mary Oliver’s intent to critique this new world—and it’s hard to imagine she even owned a flip phone—but her poetry captures its spiritual costs.
Read: From the archives: “Moccasin Flowers,” a poem by Mary Oliver
Her final collection of essays was called Upstream. In the title piece, she remembers getting separated from her parents in the woods as they stroll along a creek. But what she recalls isn’t the trauma of being lost, but the attentiveness she achieves in that charged moment of aloneness, “the sense of going toward the source.” In her narration, this is the very instant she began her long career as a noticer. What she sees isn’t an undifferentiated mass of a forest or an abstraction called “nature.” Her revelation is the pluralism of the woods. “One tree is like another, but not too much. One tulip is like the next tulip, but not altogether.” This discovery of the “harmonies and also the discords of the natural world” fills her with ecstatic joy. “Doesn’t anybody in the world anymore want to get up in the / middle of the night and / sing?”