From Equilibrium through Interest to Concern

Excerpt from Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry by Stephen Dobyns:

We go to art for pleasure, distraction, sustenance, and the apprehension of felt life. We go to expand our moral experience of the world, to come into contact with the beautiful, which may in fact be ugly. We go to find something more perfect than ourselves, to find a graceful, dramatic, and/or unusual relation between the parts, whether colors, sounds, movements, words — the primary mediums of all the arts. We go to experience a particularly harmonious and organic structure, a certain evocativeness or emotional significance, a grouping of metaphors or allusions, and we go to art to engage with the manner of presentation. We go out of curiousity; we go to forget ourselves, become ourselves, move beyond ourselves. We go for knowledge. Most of these elements we need to find to a greater or lesser degree. One or two by themselves aren't enough.

When these elements work together, art has the ability to lead us out of our complacency and ask ourselves the question: How does one live? Art doesn't answer this question, but it pushes us toward it. As Checkhove wrote, art attempts to articulate a question exactly. How well it does this, how forcefully, how compellingly, and how well it unifies these elements and makes us care about them become our criteria for great art. And when a work of art, such as a poem, fails, it fails because some of these elements are missing or have been poorly realized...

Subject matter, as it develops from a nonverbal intuition into the slow joining of form and content, tries to fasten these elements together...Subject matter begins when something takes our attention, a word that derives from the Latin verb attendere, meaning to stretch toward, to give heed to. Before that, we may exist in a state of indifference, or stasis. For the early Greeks this was a person's natural state, and when he or she was disturbed, it happened because of the intervention of a function god — separate gods, of anger, fear, joy, desire, courage, ambition, grief, and so on — smaller dieties who were directed by the more significant Olympian gods such as Zeus, Hera, or Apollo. When a person was touched by a function god, he or she became animated; that is filled with breath. The disturbance moved that person from equilibrium through interest — which in Latin meant "to be between" — to a concern, which, again from Latin, for sifting, mixing together, and, by extension, scrutinizing or trying to comprehend...

Something takes our attention, whether from curiosity or from being hit over the head. At this point we might lapse back to equilibrium or move forward by attraction (or away through aversion). Clearly, if one is hit over the head, this process is very rapid, but so is the process of falling in love at first sight, or seeing an object that one wants to possess. Many concerns stay with us over long periods of time, even our entire lives. Our personalities are defined by those concerns.