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

It would be a grotesque exaggeration to leave you with the impression that “method” is the special purview of policy analysis, let alone science and the social sciences. “There is no method but to be very intelligent,” poet and essayist T.S. Eliot wrote, by which I take him to mean “intelligence” being those unique analytic sensibilities we find in the humanities and fine arts. These too have policy relevance.

Read the better essays of George Steiner, John Berger, Adam Phillips—or if you will, Helen Vendler, Marguerite Yourcenar, Jane Hirschfield, Lydia Davis—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.

Indeed, 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 this knowing it’s outrageous to demand policy relevance from poets, let alone others in the humanities. But I suggest you also can read them and others that way.

Ammons and regulation

Policy types 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 it be that “the less we know, the more we gain”? More, in order to make our exercise here more interesting, 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 government regulation?

–By way of an answer, 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.

You may want to 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.

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

–When pressed by an interviewer, Ammons’s answer illuminates much about how knowing less is gaining more: “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 to “get it right the next time around” there is more importantly a next time to make it better. Again, not just to make a specific regulation better, but to revise what we mean by “regulating.”

To recast (revise, redescribe, rescript, recalibrate) the categories of knowing and not-knowing is to make room for—empty your mind for—resituating the cognitive limits of “regulation.”

Jorie Graham and the climate emergency

No one could 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 my challenge: Can we readers nevertheless find something to move forward with from her recent poetry? Is there some thing that I can see of possible use in my own response to the climate emergency?

In answer, consider the 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. Witness though how the rush of phrases bounces off and back from, in this case, the hard left-side margins and that right-side enjambment.

Some might call her rush of words a compulsion to continue but for someone with my background and training, it’s difficult not to see this as resilience-being-performed in light of the dark messages all around. Like Graham, we make resilience happen.

Robert Lowell and alertness

“Design” too often assumes one 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. (For my part, it’s difficult to imagine two words scarier in the English language than business schools’ “designing leadership.”)

To see how this matters for policy and management, 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 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.

–For my part, what Lowell is doing in the last two lines is also revisiting 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. It’s an alertness.

Knee deep in noticing is not being knee deep in ideas or enthusiasms because noticing is a kind of watchfulness—“Is this what you would call a blossom?” If you will, alertness in policymaking and management is, methodologically, first and foremost an analytic sensibility, whether or not the textbooks in policy and management call it that.

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