Unbinding Our Eyes: Poetry as a Way of Seeing
Nausheen Eusuf | February 2019
Poetry and vision have a long association—both in the sense of seeing the world intensely, and in the sense of sight that is visionary rather than ordinary. Some of the earliest poems in the English language, dating back a thousand years, are in fact dream visions. And the visionary strain remains strong, through Blake, Whitman, Yeats, Crane, Ginsberg, and others. But the other kind of seeing—of seeing things as they really are, the Kantian noumenon underlying the phenomenal world we observe—has equally been the pursuit of poets. Thus the Imagist movement early in the 20th century, and book titles like Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations.
One thing that’s been important to me as a reader is learning to see through poetry, the way in which it teaches us to see, the way it organizes and directs our vision, and gives us the gift of sight. We tend to take vision for granted, and hence may not realize how little we really see. But a writer, a poet especially, must train his eyes to see.
One of my favorite essays on seeing has nothing to do with poetry or literature. It’s by a 19th-century naturalist, Samuel Scudder, who as a graduate student, goes to study with a famous naturalist named Louis Agassiz at Harvard. The student is eager to learn, so the professor gives him a task. Handing the young man a specimen of a fish called haemulon preserved in a jar, he says simply, “Take this fish, and look at it.”
The student is surprised, but eager to please his master, so he looks at it intently for ten minutes. All he sees is an ugly, smelly dead fish. The professor won’t be back for a while, so the young scientist doggedly continues his scrutiny. He looks at it from this side, from that side, from one angle and another. Surely there was no more to see. But this was his task, so he perseveres. He feels the sharpness of its teeth with his fingers, and notices how the scales are arranged in rows, the shape of the gills, the eyes and lip, the fins and the tail.
When the professor returns, Scudder proudly reports his observations, and is surprised when Agassiz isn’t impressed. He had hoped for a new and more interesting task, but the professor tells him to keep looking at the fish. So the next day, he goes back to his smelly dead fish. He notices the symmetry of its design, the arrangement of its organs, the framework of bone. Still the professor says, “Look, look, look.”
This went on the next day and the next and the next, until the specimen became his friend, and the stench of the dead fish now seemed as fragrant as perfume. He became so thoroughly familiar with his fish that when the professor tested him by showing him all the other haemulon specimens in the lab, Scudder could easily identify how his fish differed from all the others. In other words, now he was able to really see it.
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The poetic counterpart of this lesson in seeing might be Whitman asking the reader to look at a blade of grass. Not a field of grass, mind you, but just a single blade. Surely, there can’t be much to see in a single blade of grass, you might object. Well, Whitman ends up seeing a whole universe in it, and his own relation to that cosmos. He sees hope, resilience, growth, renewal, humility, and divinity. He sees the entire social order, the democratic whole.
If that’s too lofty or mystical, consider a line from a contemporary poet Adrian Matejka, who is as urban and gritty as Whitman is idyllic. “There are more kinds of stars / in this universe than salt granules on drive-thru fries.” Of course, I’ve seen and eaten salt-laden French fries a thousand times, but I never noticed the way the salt granules cling to a French fry and glisten individually until I read this. Matejka made me see something I had seen a thousand times, but without ever really seeing it.
Or here’s Alan Shapiro describing a gas station restroom—a grimy place no one visits unless they absolutely have to. Who hasn’t seen “the now gray strip / of towel hanging limp / from the jammed dispenser,” or “the mirror / squinting through grime,” or “the worn-/to-a-sliver of soiled soap / on the soiled sink,” or the “the streaked bowl, / the sticky toilet seat, air / claustral with stink.” I had seen them, and used them, and never given them a second thought or a second look. I was glad to be out of there as fast as I could. The poet’s seeing is aesthetic; for most of us, it’s merely functional.
Who knew there was poetry to be found in gas station toilet bowls? Well, if you really look, perhaps there is. When Gerard Manley Hopkins was training to become a Jesuit priest, he and his peers would be given various menial tasks relating to the upkeep of the novitiate. Hopkins was once assigned to clean the outdoor toilets. In one journal entry, on a frosty February morning, he writes: “The slate slabs of the urinals even are frosted in graceful sprays.” Has there ever been such an exquisite description of urinals? It’s like you suddenly notice the heft of the slate, the quality of light glinting off the frost, and the delicate designs etched by the frost. If you learn how to see, which is something poetry teaches us, then there’s nothing that is not worth seeing.
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Seeing has to be intentional. Our eyes actually can deceive us in remarkable ways. It always amazes me how the brain fudges what the eye sees, so that the blind spot is neatly covered up, much like the way Photoshop can cover up a blemish. Try it. Use a marker to make a small black dot on a piece of paper. Cover one eye, and find the blind spot of the other by fixing your gaze at one place, then slowly moving the piece of paper in front of you at arm’s length until you notice the circle has disappeared. And yet, the area doesn’t appear blank—it gets fudged; the brain fills in using whatever is around it. Our blindness gets covered up.
A few years ago, I was looking out for cars as I crossed the street. I was on Commonwealth Avenue, a major thoroughfare that passes through the Boston University campus. It’s a four-lane street, plus bicycle lanes on each side, and subway lines running through the center. I was looking out for any cars coming towards me, but there weren’t any, so I went striding forth.
I was almost on the other side when someone called out, “Hey, watch out!” I stopped abruptly and saw a bicyclist coming towards me on the bicycle lane. If he hadn’t called out, I would have walked right into his path. The bizarre thing is that I was looking in that direction while crossing, and yet I didn’t see the bicycle! It was cars I was looking out for, so it’s as if my vision was adjusted to scan for objects that were at least the size of a car, or bigger. I literally could not see the bicyclist because I wasn’t consciously looking out for bicycles—only cars. My brain was trying to be helpful by filtering out anything smaller than a car, so the guy on the bicycle was as good as invisible.
A friend of mine reported a similar experience after she started learning to drive. Suddenly she became aware of all the traffic signs and signals that she had never really noticed were there. Now that she was intentionally looking for them, it was as if they suddenly appeared on the scene—blinking, instructing, warning, and signifying—even though they had been there all along. An entire semiotic system had suddenly sprung up in the perceiver’s consciousness—now that she was capable of seeing it. It’s quite strange and unsettling that our brains actually limit what we see, and even what we can see.
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In an essay titled “The Poet,” Emerson claims that “Poets are liberating gods.” That’s a grandiose claim to make regarding an eccentric set of idlers who while away their time looking at a blade of grass, or clouds or daffodils, or French fries or toilet bowls. I think Emerson makes that claim because poets make us see. They liberate us from our habitual blindness by giving us a new set of eyes to see the world. They give us the world anew, as if for the first time.
To really see is to unbind our eyes. So take the invitation. Look at a blade of grass. See how it glistens with dew. How it arcs along its length, how the edges are slightly serrated, how its veins run parallel, like brothers, across the vast expanse from stalk to tip. How it sways and bends and shivers in the wind. How resolutely it springs from the earth.
Poetry asks you to look closely, as if you’re seeing something for the first time. Because every time is the first time.
Nausheen Eusuf is a PhD candidate in English at Boston University, and a graduate of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins. Her poetry has appeared in The American Scholar, Poetry Daily, PN Review, and World Literature Today, and has been selected for inclusion in Best American Poetry 2018. Her first full-length collection Not Elegy, But Eros was recently published by NYQ Books. You can find more of her work at www.nausheeneusuf.com.