The following is reprinted from my book Vibrant Words: Ideas and Inspirations for Poets, PushPen Press 2014.
Years ago, I was a student in a drawing class trying to draw a tree. My teacher came by and said, “What you’ve drawn is your idea of a tree. This is what you’ve been told, all your life, is a tree.” My tree looked exactly like the trees I drew in elementary school. “You have to minutely observe something to stop seeing what you think it is, and see what it really is.”
Today we’re going to look at something closely. Throw away your idea of what an object is, and try to understand what it actually is. The more carefully you look at something, the stranger it gets – that’s because you’re seeing details you don’t usually pay attention to.
Take any object. For example, I am looking at my desk lamp. If I describe its contour, I get this: “smooth, metal, screws, base, cord, bulb, switch, hinge, shade, arm, knob, arm, hinge, base…” and if I start to look at it more closely, I get “dusty, dead fly, scuff mark, silver, black, heavy, hot, too bright in that position, not bright enough in the other position, tilt, triangle thing the cord comes out of…” now I drill down again, and I get “casts shadow over my keyboard, makes the veins on my hands look like a topographical map, lights the tops of my books and the two-dollar bill I use as a bookmark, leaves my overstuffed files in the shadow.” Hmm. There is a story in this ordinary desk accessory. Is my lamp a metaphor for something else? Isn’t everything?
The experience of seeing this closely can simultaneously exhilarate and terrify. When I first saw a blown-up photo of a dust mite, it gave me the creeps for days, but I finally accepted the fact that the world is full of tiny, invisible living creatures.
Spend the day looking closely at things. Look at your children, your pets, your furniture. Look until you don’t recognize them anymore. Write down what you really see.
Categories: Diary of a Poet
Lovely essay. It reminds me of the book “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Things One Sees” about the conceptual artist Robert Irwin by Lawrence Wechsler.