Pay Attention Like a Poet

Pay Attention Like a Poet


Cultivate presence by writing haiku poetry.

When you’re taking a shower, do you actually smell your body wash? Do you taste the flavors and textures of your lunch? Do you look at the lines on your lover’s skin? Do you pay attention to what’s outside your window, to the sky at night, to the rows of oak trees on your commute?

Unless we’re in a new place or experiencing something we perceive as extraordinary, we breeze right by. We go on with our days, eyes on our to-do lists, asleep to the—ordinary—splendor around us.

Cultivating creativity starts with paying attention—even to the mundane, commonplace, and boring. As Dutch researcher Matthijs Baas and colleagues concluded in their study on creativity, “To be creative, you need to have, or be trained in, the ability to carefully observe, notice or attend to phenomena that pass your mind’s eye.”

No one does this better than poets. As Rainer Maria Rilke wrote: “To write poetry is to be alive.” It is to be alive to both our external and internal surroundings. After all, poets pay very close attention to everything from the inside of a flower to the inside of our hearts.

Plus, poets do something else so many of us don’t: They use their senses. They savor the spices in their supper, one tiny bite at a time. They smell the rain (and maybe even taste it). They look at the angles of a room, at the angles of a face. They stare at the sky, and linger longer at the library, feeling a book’s firm spine, running their fingers over their favorite words. They catch conversations in cafes, grocery stores, and doctor's offices.

Poets essentially explore their everyday with a magnifying glass. They peer into every cabinet, every nook and cranny. Poets are masters of observation, akin to Sherlock Holmes. They put life under a microscope, peeling back the layers, one by one, of big and small things—of love, lunch, lackluster emotions, early mornings. And they bring this painstaking attention to their descriptions, so they’re able to capture the nuances of everything from a stranger's perfume to a slice of apple pie.

And you can do the same. No poetic training or education needed. As poet Lucille Clifton once said: “I was not trained as a poet. I've never taken poetry lessons. I've never had workshops. Nobody taught me anything, really much. But I think that we're beginning to remember that the first poets didn't come out of a classroom, that poetry began when somebody walked off of a savanna or out of a cave and looked up at the sky with wonder and said, ‘Ahhh.’ That was the first poem.”

To pay attention like a poet, simply get curious. Get curious about everything. And ask questions. All kinds of questions. When I wake up, what do I see? What do I hear? What am I feeling? If my heart could talk, what would it say? What kinds of images appear in my dreams? How does my husband drink his coffee? What are the people on the train chatting about?

Also consider these words from Betty Smith’s gorgeous book, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, “Look at everything always as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time: Thus is your time on earth filled with glory.”

Embodying a poet doesn’t just boost our creativity. Training ourselves to intently look and listen also boosts our lives. As Henry Miller beautifully said, “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”

And, thankfully, all of us have this ability. This power. All we need to do is open our eyes.

Writing Exercise

A fun and accessible way to ease into poetry writing is through haiku. Haiku is a Japanese poem with three lines and 17 syllables: The first line has 5 syllables; the second line has 7 syllables; and the third line has 5 syllables. Try composing a haiku for all sorts of subjects. Here are some specific prompts to kick-start your creativity: “The morning makes me feel …” “Tonight, the moon looks like…” “When I look into his eyes, I see …” “My lunch tastes funny because ...” “Winter feels like...” “The trees outside my window resemble...” “This week I've been wondering a lot about..." “The rain smells like…” “If love were a color…”

Start by jotting down your responses to these prompts in your journal. (Every poet must have a place to gather their thoughts, feelings, observations.) Next re-read each response, and pick out the most poignant words or images. Then start composing your haiku using the 5-7-5 format. 

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