(Above: The paper on little-known poet Henry Ponder produced by Pentagram)
When I first decided to make a short film about Henry Ponder, a little-known British poet who thinks about his world a lot, I was not aware of ‘mindfulness’ as a trend. But maybe, as Oogway in Kung Fu Panda says, there are no accidents. Maybe I was attracted to Henry for exactly the same reasons that mindfulness is having its moment in anti-stress apps, books and courses around the world.
When I was younger, I used to consider the world around me and notice things – and think things – such as, no matter when you reach a place, your nose will have got there slightly before you; or the fact that a stopped clock will tell the right time twice a day. Idle thoughts perhaps, but also honest reflections on a world which I had time to attend to, be mindful of and curious about.
Now my life affords me little time to think. Responsibility is partly to blame. I have a family, I run a charity, I am a partner at a design studio, I have a group of friends I like to see, I have personal projects to achieve, I have tax returns to complete. Each a time-intensive mix of duty and pleasure, other than the tax return which gives me no pleasure.
But technology is also to blame. With a computer in my pocket, I am subjected to an onslaught of connectivity on a minute by minute basis where a thousand mini-urgencies a day demand that I look at my screen and not consider my world.
Against this background of time and attention impoverishment, I first became aware of Henry, a minor poet tweeting daily poems in which he contemplated his everyday world. Henry wrote about the restorative nature of sweeping a floor, the brusque language of warning signs, the inner vulnerability of a pain au raisin and more. As I followed his poems, they became mini-mediations not just in his day but mine, reminding me to think beyond my immediate preoccupations; reminding me to press pause on my frantic life and smell life’s proverbial flowers.
Because the poems had a profound effect on me, I felt that Henry deserved to be seen by more than his 71 followers. I contacted him on Twitter and arranged to meet him. In person, he was a small, shy man with unkempt hair and thick-rimmed glasses. When I suggested the idea of making a very short film about him, he thought for a while and then said, “That would be kind.”
We made a nice film, shot on a wind-up 16mm Bolex, with titles created from old Swiss spelling tiles. We held a premiere for friends and posted it online. I thought it would get a few hundred hits. Then Henry was made a ‘staff pick’ on Vimeo and suddenly 43,000 people had seen him, blogposts around the world were praising him and he was selected for the short film corner at the Cannes film festival.
I was puzzled by his minor success, but a friend of mine was less surprised. “Obviously people like him. He’s about mindfulness,” he said. “And mindfulness is absolutely everywhere.” For the next few days, I researched this trend and saw some uncanny parallels with Henry’s work.
According to Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition (Bishop, 2003), mindfulness begins by making oneself fully present in the moment, alert to the here and now. I noticed how Henry’s poems reveal him to be a frequent inhibitor of the here and now, attuning to it patience and reverence:
Pour milk in tea but do not stir. Watch milk clouds and tea seas swirl together at the gentle pace they prefer.
Mindfulness also involves a direct experience of events in mind and body without intervening thought or judgement. In a poem about hot baked beans, Henry describes a physical compulsion but does so without critique:
With hot baked beans I burn my gum. It swells, goes squishy and numb. I am compelled to touch it with my tongue. Again and again I succumb.
Mindfulness is also said to involve a direct observation of various objects or experiences as if for the first time, a quality that is often referred to as ‘beginner’s mind’. In his poetry, I saw that Henry displayed beginner’s mind in abundance, for example, contemplating the prawn on the end of his fork:
When I put a prawn in my mouth, I’m chewing a whole creature. Not a side of one or a slice of one. It’s an interesting prawn feature.
I noted that another component of mindfulness is the ability to see your own thought process. “Watch as they appear in your mind, seemingly from thin air, and watch again as they disappear, like a soap bubble bursting.” I saw that Henry’s work was filled with such thought observation:
MORSEL is a word I like to I picture in my mind. I watch its letters drift apart, I watch all sense of it unwind.
Finally, my research into mindfulness revealed one of its most important consequences: to go beyond the preoccupations of the self and heightening compassion with other people and things. In a memorable poem, Henry shows exactly this kind of compassion with a jar of instant coffee:
What does a jar of coffee feel the moment you break its seal? Exactly what you would be feeling if a giant spoon came through your ceiling.
The more I found out about mindfulness, the more Henry’s art revealed itself. Henry was a mindfulness disciple; a practitioner; a master even. His version of quiet contemplation was right on the mindfulness money.
And that was the other thing that I noticed – that mindfulness money was everywhere. I saw mindfulness in the form of a £25m rated app called Headspace, the first version of which launched in 2012 and has been downloaded in 150 countries. I saw an industry of mindfulness books called things like Living The Mindful Way and Finding Peace in a Frantic World.
I read about top dollar mindfulness gurus and classes in Wall Street and Silicon Valley, teaching employees of companies like Goldmans and Google how to make stronger, calmer decisions and how to be more attuned for productivity.
And in observing the buzz and commerce around mindfulness, I finally realised why Henry means so much to me: because he puts little such value on himself. Henry is a minor poet who writes some minor poetry. He is not attempting to be on-trend, or create an online following of a million, or build a career as a guru, or cash in on the next big app.
For him mindfulness is not a strategy; it’s just something he likes to get lost in, something he likes to do. And out of all of Henry’s mindfulness lessons, maybe that’s the most important one.
Naresh Ramchandani is a partner at the design studio Pentagram in London, pentagram.com. Follow Henry Ponder on Twitter @henryponder