Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others. ~Jonathan Swift
If I were going to select one thing that makes the difference in a poet and their poetry, or in the daily life of an average man, it would be the vision with which that person looks at himself and the world around him.
Jonathan Swift, a prolific writer, (best known for the prose masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels, and considered the foremost prose satirist in the English language*) gives a near perfect definition of (artistic-spiritual) vision when he says it is “the art of seeing what is invisible to others.”
The poet’s true gift is his ability to see these invisible elements and then translate them. An excellent poet will see deeper than the average person. He will use this deeper vision, take in the essence of truth before him, and then use the medium of language to translate what he sees with intense emotion and minute detail. All great and poignant poetry is about vision, translation, and audience.
Imagine yourself as a child opening a birthday gift – you tear the paper off the box and find a large magnifying glass inside. The very first thing you do is go look at all the things you’re interested in with your new glass. You will see everything as before – but then, in a new way as the tiny elements of these things grow larger and clearer under magnification.
Now, imagine the poet, looking at everything in his world through a magnifying glass. He is already looking at the world around him, but he learns to tune his vision in such a way as to see deeper – as if he were holding a magnifying glass up in front of everything that catches his attention. This is how the poet “sees the invisible.”
Here is an example of detail from the poem, Death in Leamington, by John Betjeman:
She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the evening star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa.
Beside her the lonely crochet
Lay patiently and unstirred,
But the fingers that would have worked it
Were dead as the spoken word.
And Nurse came in with the tea-things
Breast high’ mid the stands and chairs —
But Nurse was alone with her own little soul,
And the things were alone with theirs./ …..
Betjeman uses a variety of poetic techniques in this excerpt, but pay special attention to his translation into imagery with meaning.
The death in Betjeman’s poem is recorded in slow-motion, each detail carefully carved in the readers mind, each small thing translated to perfection. We see the scene as the poet sees it – with the shared depth of sadness the poet experiences. He brings the moment to life in a vibrant, deep way which changes us, the reader, as we move through this episode with him. We see through his eyes.
The following poem is an example of a poet’s ability to use the smallest details, along with connotation, to create a vivid picture and joined experience with the reader. Robert Hayden is a master of experience translation in Those Winter Sundays:
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
Hayden sees the past with his father in the new light of his own maturity. The poem explores the coldness (ingratitude) felt as a child and creates a mirroring effect with the coldness of the house.
The reader sees and feels the sadness, the understanding and regret, as the poet drills-down to the simple weekly experience. The poet is, at once, both child and adult speaking to us, telling us his story in a way that brings us inside of it with him. The words are translated into an experience for the reader.
A poet writes for himself to large degree. However, he writes in a fixed time and place – each decade belongs to the lingering poetic voices which have named it. This means that a poet must always be conscious of Audience.
The poem cannot exist away and aside from audience. It speaks from a place and time where others live, where history occurs, and the future becomes the past. In thinking of audience, we must bring time and place to the table, and also class, status, country, and world-view.
Audience, in the larger sense, is demonstrated perfectly by Allen Ginsberg in this excerpt from the poem, America:
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid I’m not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet.
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid.
My mind is made up there’s going to be trouble.
You should have seen me reading Marx.
My psychoanalyst thinks I’m perfectly right.
I won’t say the Lord’s Prayer.
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over from Russia.
Ginsberg is speaking in and from a particular time in American history. His poems resonate strongly with people of that generation sharing similar experiences. They resonate now in a more general sense or as an example of defiance and rebellion to the status quo for people of a different culture or time.
Culture is a part of poem and audience alike. The following excerpts, by Gwendolyn Brooks and Sterling A. Brown speak with a strong voice that is both living in and speaking from a particular culture:
We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks
We Real Cool
The Pool Players
Seven at the Golden Shovel
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk Late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
Excerpt from Riverbank Blues by Sterling A. Brown
A man git his feet set in a sticky mudbank,
A man git dis yellow water in his blood,
No need for hopin’, no need for doin’,
Muddy streams keep him fixed for good.
Little Muddy, Big Muddy, Moreau and Osage,
Little Mary’s, Big Mary’s, Cedar Creek,
Flood deir muddy water roundabout a man’s roots,
Keep him soaked and stranded and git him weak./…../
Brown’s poem about the Mississippi River speaks of a local, rural culture that lives with the good and the bad of the river. His poem tolls a warning while speaking generally of danger and oppression, yet deals specifically with the danger and oppression locally in relation to the River.
A “good” poem is hard to define. There are variances, personal preferences, and socio-political elements that make definition impossible. However, we can see that the hallmark of good poetry – poetry that lasts and brings a voice to it’s people, culture, and generation – is a combination of poetic vision, translation, and audience. The poet writing with strong abilities in these areas will be heard. ~
“A culture is made – or destroyed – by its articulate voices.” ~Ayn Rand
- Poet laureate pens a poem for the Royal wedding (telegraph.co.uk)
- “100 Thousand Poets for Change” Team Needs Caribbean Poets (repeatingislands.com)
- Poet draws on senses to give words life (search.japantimes.co.jp)