Remembering How to See

“But what the poets sees with his always new vision is not what is “imaginary”; he sees what others have forgotten how to see. The poet is always inadvertently stripping away the veils and showing us his reality. Many poets, as we know, go mad because they cannot bear the worlds of illusion and falsehood in which most human beings spend their lives.” – Karl Shapiro, “What is Not Poetry?”

Writing is a way of getting to the truth of what I see, a way to peal back the layers, to ask what is this I have experienced,  how do I name it, what is its essence? There are two kinds of knowing–the experience itself, and then the re-experiencing when in the act of writing. Writing  allows me to burrow in to the original experience and know it more completely. The experiences I have nurture ideas for writing, and the writing enriches and deepens the experience. The two things are intimately intertwined.

Writing poetry is a way to keep alive, to keep in touch with the mystery. Wanting to name the mystery doesn’t lessen it, instead it helps to increase its wonder. I want to always be filled with wonder like I was as a child looking out the window of the house my father built at the sea of fog as it filled the valley below leaving islands of hills. The hills and the fog were not just objects with names, they were part of a geography that absorbed me into itself and defined me.

“The poet,” Shapiro says,”sees what others have forgotten how to see. “How do people arrive at the place where they forget how to see? How do I live in such a way that I am not asleep, so that I nurture the eyes and ears of the heart?

When I write, I am try to see with eyes open, to understand, to touch the live nerve where life touches the bone so that I know what my experiences are trying to say to me about how to live. If I want to write well, I must listen intently to the life around me and live with an attitude of vulnerability and humility. I can’t allow myself to get wrapped up in the desire to have a name, status, power, or be concerned with the competition or what others say about my work. Focusing on how people might perceive me or my work, would drain the real strength of my work and effort. It would distract, from the goal of writing itself, and get in the way of seeing and understanding that makes for good writing. The important thing is the work of writing, and to find as I write how to draw closer to being able to say what can’t be said–to stand inside the holy space of life. I must live leaning in to my experiences, looking, listening–then write what I see and hear, including the questions.

Our culture is very interested in competition and position, making it difficult to keep focused on the work of living deeply and writing honestly. A poet must be fully immersed in the world, seeing it, knowing it, but at the same time outside of it. As Shapiro goes on to say in the same essay, “Whenever the poet is not “oned” with the experience we can always detect the forcing, the insincerity.” It is this oneness with our experiences and with the world that allows us to know we are alive, and opens the door for us to experience meaning.

1 thought on “Remembering How to See”

  1. Beautifully written. I genuinely identify with your sentiments. Thank you for sharing these thoughtful words. They have enriched me.

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