Implications for policy and management of Robert Lowell’s poem, “Notice” (no joke)

–“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 designs just don’t work, as contingency and context get in the way.

To see how this might matter, consider a late poem of Robert Lowell, “Notice,” and a 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:

Notice

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 second line, “We are not deep in ideas, imagination or enthusiasm” and making this point: The designs put upon us by ideas and enthusiasms differ from the noticing designed into us in at least one major respect.

We notice the ideas-that-design without insisting that this noticing (more like a distraction than a long deliberate look) 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. A quite different poet, Boris Pasternak, makes the point stronger: He’s to have said that life creates events to distract our attention away from it, so that we can get on with work that cannot be accomplished any other way.

–If so, policy and management have more to do with these positive distractions than we might suppose when preoccupied when noticing and criticizing the negative distractions of politics in life. An example?

Much has been made of the distinction between Type I or System 1 thinking—it is nonconscious and all but automatic, rooted in fear and emotion—in comparison to Type II or System 2 thinking that is conscious, deliberative, and not rooted in emotion or instinct. You might now want to rethink conscious deliberation and analysis as positive distractions, that is, diversions from acting otherwise stereotypically or worse, where we are more likely to revert to the latter when responding to unknown unknowns, inexperience and/or great difficulties.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s