Close Reading By Heart W.S. Merwin’s Thanks (Line 1: Listen)

Listen. Which is also to say. Please. Listen. Please read. But also, and maybe with similar levels of peevish neediness: this is really important, so you better damn well listen and just, you know, pay attention to what I have to say or write. If not: your loss! More truthfully of course, the latter is always a shorthand for “my loss”.  

Or maybe it’s more like: “Listen…you know that guy you were just talking to over there, yeah yeah, don’t look, he’s looking at us, yeah the dude with the split-hem trousers? Yes him. Weeeeeell, word on the street: skank. Hundred percent. And the worst kind. Skank who thinks he’s dank. I know. I know you like him, but, listen… 


Listen, there’s a Hafez poem (number 56 in my Poetry Liturgy) that I think has the measure of us human animals.

“Admit something,” he summons, another Listen-To-Me rhetorical ploy: 

Everyone you see, you say to them, “Love me.”
Of course you do not say this out loud, otherwise someone would call the cops.

I think once we’ve truly digested the ramifications of this, there’s a chance for us to be much more at peace with our own neediness -our commanding and demanding need for attention, understanding, respect, affection- as well as the neediness of others. Equally, we might allow ourselves to be less harsh on ourselves when the darker flip-side of those social emotions (guilt, shame, envy, pride) show up.


Listen, of all the theories for the origins and evolution of language, I find anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s gossip and grooming hypothesis extremely persuasive. Even more so now in the age of social media, where text is cheap as talk but still serves a similar function: providing some cohesiveness for groups to which we belong or wish to belong. Even more so for human animal groups which far outstrip the size of other Great Ape configurations. Think for a moment about the face-to-face interactional scope of Pleistocene or hunter-gatherer societies compared to ours. Those were much, much smaller groups than the global span of ours, but the same social algorithm helped to glue them together: You scratch/like/ retweet my back and I’ll scratch/like/RT yours. 


Check out the flurry of communication (we now use the more “serious” term Trending to describe this phenomenon) when a particularly juicy bit of goss enters the social media ecosystem. As I write this, in the midst of climate and political meltdown, the majority of our Western human tribe are (Listen!) getting extremely  exercised about Kylie Jenner, a reality TV star, and her attempt to cash in on a video of her singing Rise and Shine to her daughter Stormi, by releasing a 65 dollar hoodie with Riiise and Shiiine trailing down each arm. 

It’s gossip like this that puts anything The Onion can do in terms of satire directly out of business. And even that thing we call Serious News (i.e. political gossip) doesn’t really differ that much, phenomenologically, in its shit-stirring, well-I-never focus. #OxfordCircus is also trending on Twitter today (Friday 18 October, 2019), but not as much as the Riiise and Shiiine hoodie. The moral maze talking-point for the former being:  “Is the Extinction Rebellion blockage of one of the busiest junctions in London a meaningless disruption or a necessary intervention?”.

Listen: it is!

Listen: don’t be daft!

Listen: maybe a bit of both?   


Gossip, which is to now say perhaps language in general, is also a kind of “guessing”. Our minds are always trying to work out why this thing happened rather than that thing (especially if we’re implicated), and why any of this matters, which we mostly feel it does. In his fable Make This Simple Test Merwin invites us to surmise away, whilst also gently mocking these surmisings: 

“Guess why you are eating or drinking it. Guess what it may do for you. Guess what it was meant to do. By whom. When. Why. Guess where in the course of evolution you took the first step toward it. Guess which of your organs recognizes it. Guess whether it is welcomed to their temples. Guess how it figures in their prayers. Guess how completely you become what you eat. Guess how soon. Guess at the taste of locusts and wild honey. Guess at the taste of water. Guess what the rivers see as they die. Guess why the babies are burning. Guess why there is silence in heaven. Guess why you were ever born.”

Once we follow guessing (language) wherever it wants to take us, it can sometimes deliver sensual poetic simulations (Guess at the taste of locusts and wild honey), pertinent political questions (Guess why the babies are burning) but also forms of potentially disruptive and even self-destructive thinking. 


Listen, says Adam Phillips in his book Attention Seeking which feels like a lodestar to me at the moment, alongside Richard Seymour’s The Twittering Machine for all the things I am struggling with in our culture and in myself, “Attention-seeking, whatever else it is, is always a love test, and should be treated as such.” Seymour is more prone to use the language of gambling and addiction to delineate our misplaced devotions (mid 16th century English: addict ‘bound or devoted (to someone’), from Latin addict- ‘assigned’):

“Addiction is a thwarted form of love. It is a passionate attachment to something that, slowly, occupies a larger and larger part of one’s mind. It exercises a veto over other loves, aspirations and dreams. It occupies attention, when attention is subject to economic scarcity. It usurps our ingenuity, when the goal in life becomes maintaining access to the object, staying close to it. For the Twittering Machine, this is good: it keeps us writing. In an attention economy, addiction is not so much a scourge as a mode of production.”

Phillips meanwhile continues in a more expansive, Hafezian-vein: 

“[It should be treated] without contempt. In our attention-seeking it could be assumed that we know neither what we want nor what we expect; and so we are in our starkest dependence on others. And in that true state of absolute dependence lies the possibility, the groundswell, of new forms of sociability. Attention-seeking then, ideally, as a comedy of errors, rather than a tragedy of failures. Attention-seeking as something that might come without excuses.”

Listen. I am making no excuses for any of these freely-associative thoughts. I am writing them down half-hoping you will listen, read and share them with the same virality as the juiciest gossip gets shared around the Grownup Playground. I know that’s very unlikely. But to quote a song that it is all about the pleasure of following -i.e. listening, reading, communicating with what most keenly draws our attention (ideas, beauty, sex)- DON’T STOP ME NOW. Even in this sentence, and especially the last, I’m having such a good time.

Thank you. 

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