Analytic sensibilities and their policy relevance: poets A.R. Ammons, Jorie Graham and Robert Lowell

Read the best essays of George Steiner, John Berger, Adam Phillips–or if you will, Helen Vendler, Marguerite Yourcenar, Jane Hirschfield–and you encounter in each an analytic sensibility, sui generis. No need here for a collective or shared point of departure to understanding complexity’s implications for public and private!

I’d go further: There are times when the very different analytic sensibilities posed by the poetry of A.R. Ammons, Jorie Graham and Robert Lowell achieve actual policy relevance. I say and stress this because the contributions of the humanities and fine arts have always been pertinent to active public policy.

I. Ammons and regulation

–Policy types typically fasten to knowledge as a Good Thing in the sense that, on net, more information is better in a world where information is power. Over an array of accounts, A.R. Ammons insists that the less information I have, the better off I am—not all the time, but when so, then importantly so. (To be clear, he is not talking about “ignorance is bliss.”)

For those working in policy and management, how could “the less we know, the more we gain” be the case and what would that mean when it comes to the heavy machinery called official regulation? Is there something here about the value of foregrounding inexperience—having less “knowledge”—as a way of adding purchase to rethinking difficult issues, in this case, regulation?

–By way of an answer, let’s jump into the hard part—Ammons’s poem, “Offset,” in its entirety:

Losing information he
rose gaining
till at total
loss gain was
extreme & invisible:
the eye
seeing nothing
lost its
(that is a mere motion)
fanned out
into failing swirls
slowed &
became continuum.

Please reread the poem once more.

Part of what Ammons seems to be saying is that by losing information—the bits and pieces that make up “you”—you gain by becoming less separate, your bits and pieces slow down, fan out, spread into a vital whole. We empty our minds so as to attend to what matters—emptying the eye to have the I.

How, though, is this different from ignorance is bliss or, less pejoratively, seeking to know only what you need to know?

–When pressed by interviewer, Ammons’s answer illuminates much about how knowing less is gaining more for him: “I’m always feeling, whatever I’m saying, that I don’t really believe it, and that maybe in the next sentence I’ll get it right, but I never do”.

Imagine policymakers and regulators, when pressed, recognizing that not getting it right today places them at the start of tomorrow’s policymaking—not its end but its revision of even the categories of “policymaking” and “regulation.”

Ammons, if I understand him, is insisting that in the compulsion and not just desire to “get it right the next time around,” there at least be a next time (room) to make it better. Again, not just to make a specific regulation better, but to revise what we mean by “regulating.”

To revise (redescribe, rescript, recast, recalibrate) the categories of knowing and not-knowing is to make room for–empty your mind for—resituating the cognitive limits of “regulation” that now matter. The eye is no longer fixed on where it had settled before, but with a new focal point in sight. It is where, if you will, the knowledgeable gives way to a (re)freshened inexperience.

2. Jorie Graham and the climate emergency

–No one would accuse Jorie Graham of being hopeful about the climate emergency. There is not a scintilla, not a homeopathic whiff of environmental optimism, techno-social-otherwise, in the poetry I’ve read of hers.

Which poses the challenge: Can I nevertheless find something to move forward with from her four recent poetry? Is there some thing that I can see of possible use in my responding to the climate emergency?

–In answer, consider the following lines from her book, Sea Change:

                                                                                   . . .the last river we know loses its
form, widens, as if a foot were lifted from the dancefloor but not put down again, ever,
                                                        so that it's not a
dance-step, no, more like an amputation where the step just disappears, midair, although
                                                        also the rest of the body is 
missing, beware of your past, there is a fiery apple in the orchard, the coal in the under-
                                                        ground is bursting with
                                                        sunlight, inquire no further it says. . . 

There’s that tumbling out and after of words and the turns of phrase that deepen the rush. Then witness how the tumble of phrases bounces off and back from, in this case, the hard left-side margins and right-side enjambment. For someone with my background and training, it’s difficult not to see this as resilience-being-performed in midst of the dark messages delivered.

Others might call her rush of words a compulsion to continue but I see hard walls being repelled from and pushed up to (and sometimes through). Not as hope or the promise of control. Rather: as a coiled responsiveness that toggles between everywhere necessary and never out of sight/site. An analytic sensibility, in my reading; a resilience for the climate emergency.

3. Robert Lowell and noticing

–“Design” is a trigger-word for me, when it registers the notion one can macro-design the micro. Anyone who has tried to implement as planned knows how plug-and-play designs don’t work in complex policy and management, as contingency and context invariably get in the way.

To see how this matters, consider a late poem of Robert Lowell, “Notice,” and a gloss on it by Helen Vendler, the literary critic. 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 sees 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 also revisiting, I believe, 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 because noticing is not an idea. Knee deep in noticing is not being knee deep in ideas or enthusiasms because noticing is a kind of momentary alertness—“Is this what you would call a blossom?” Alertness in policymaking and management, more generally, is an analytic sensibility of many different forms.

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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