‘Attention Is the Beginning of Devotion’

The late poet Mary Oliver warned against looking without noticing. In an age of distraction, her work is more urgent than ever.

The poet Mary Oliver speaks at a podium.
Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

I can say definitively now that I faltered in pursuit of my New Year’s resolution. My self-improvement project for the year was to read a fresh poem every morning, before glimpsing the accumulation of unresponded email and lifting the lid off Twitter. My purpose, when I explained it to my wife and kids a few hours before midnight, was to ritualistically remind myself of emotions other than those triggered by the front page.

What I didn’t say is that I was also positioning myself like a senior citizen hunched over the crossword. I was warding off the possibility of mental deterioration.

I have a fear stoked by a doomsaying prophecy about the future of reading: A century ago or so, poetry was a fixture of everyday life, enjoyed by everyday people. Then it slowly lost its audience. It turned out that the poem required sharper focus than a television audience could sustain and more patience than modernity would permit. This decline, according to some publishers and bookstore owners, is a harbinger. As the age of zombie swiping runs its course, the novel will follow the fate of verse. It will become a niche passion, enjoyed by a shrinking caste of connoisseurs trained to slow their minds and absorb long, twisting chunks of narrative.

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.

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?”

The piece concludes with a sentence that implants itself in the brain, because it is, in fact, so far upstream from the way we live: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” And, of course, this is so. The unnoticed can’t possibly be loved. Certain critics liked to trash Oliver as unsophisticated. But her simplicity was naked display of the elemental: Dilate, she insisted, because a world worthy of attachment exists outside ourselves, and the alternative is numbness and narcissism.

Attention is the beginning of devotion. The idea exhilarates, but it also saddens. If the attention of humans can be so easily filched by a machine—or, more precisely, the companies that operate those machines—then it follows that the capacity for devotion is damaged along the way. Any parent who has felt the twinge of shame that comes with the belated realization that a social-media feed has taken them away from a conversation with their child knows this to be true.

When I pulled Oliver’s collected works off the shelf, I turned to her poem “When Death Comes,” published decades before the fact it imagines. If the mind peels away distraction, it inevitably thinks about death—and Oliver thought about it often. She wanted to leave the world as she made her way through the woods. “I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering: / what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?” She hoped that a lifetime of careful attention had opened her to wonder and commitment, even when “death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse / to buy me, and snaps the purse shut.” Because Oliver stared hard at mortality, her field of vision had come to extend beyond personal anguish—past the abuse she suffered as a child and past all other earthly struggles—to a place of overwhelming gratitude. “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement. / I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”

I didn’t stick with my morning ritual, just as I failed to eliminate nocturnal snacking. Still, I think about Oliver’s work almost every day. On a long walk, or at dinner, when I feel the buzz in my pocket, I hear her words and desperately want to do better, to regain control of my gaze and fix it harder. Attention is the beginning of devotion.