“Design” is a trigger-word for me, when it encourages the unhelpful notion one can macro-design the micro. Anyone who has tried to implement as planned—today’s version of clockmaker God and the echt rational—knows how plug-and-play implementation produces something objectively real unexpectedly. Contingency and context get in the way for any such arrow-straight causality.

To see why this might matter, consider a late poem of Robert Lowell, “Notice,” and the gloss on it by the critic, Helen Vendler. Here’s the poem in its entirety, centering as it does around Lowell’s leaving an asylum after a manic-depressive episode:


The resident doctor said,
“We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm –
how can we help you?”
I asked,
“These days of only poems and depression –
what can I do with them?
Will they help me to notice
what I cannot bear to look at?”

The doctor is forgotten now
like a friend’s wife’s maiden-name.
I am free
to ride elbow to elbow on the rush-hour train
and copy on the back of a letter,
as if alone:
“When the trees close branches and redden,
their winter skeletons are hard to find—”
to know after long rest
and twenty miles of outlying city
that the much-heralded spring is here,
and say,
“Is this what you would call a blossom?”
Then home – I can walk it blindfold.
But we must notice –
we are designed for the moment.


I take up Vendler’s gloss when she turns to Lowell’s last line:

“In becoming conscious of his recovery by becoming aware, literally moment by moment, of his new capacities for the most ordinary actions of life, the poet seems that “we are designed for the moment”—that our consciousness chiefly functions moment by moment, action by action, realization by realization. Biologically, “we are designed for the moment” of noticing.”

What Lowell is doing in the last two lines is revisiting, I’d like to think, the first two lines, and making an important point: The designs put upon us by ideas and enthusiasms differ from the noticing designed into us in one major respect. We notice the ideas-that-design without insisting that noticing is itself an idea or by design. Knee deep in noticing is not being knee deep in ideas or enthusiasms because of the decidedly undesigned distractions—“Is this what you would call a blossom?”—in between.

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