On Looking

“I see no more than you, but I have trained myself to notice what I see.”
– Sherlock Holmes, in Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier

I’m trying to say something in this blog which is important to me, and I am confronted with two problems. I don’t quite know what it is I want to say, and I don’t quite know how to say it. I will only find out what I have to say by trying to say it – and I will only find out how to say it, by repeatedly getting it wrong. Frankly it’s a pain in the neck.

It’s also the central process of writing poetry. Practical advice is easy to give – how to deal with rejection, how to get the most benefit from reading poetry, and so on. We’ll get to that, and there is a very practical exercise at the end of this entry. But let’s not confuse technique or ambition with the real skills and pleasures of poetry; the endless wrangling with what we see, what we think, and how to say it so that others might see it too.

The best poetry is at once very private and very public. Here’s a poem, for instance, that describes a moment in Louis Macneice’s life. I didn’t share that moment with him, but I know what he means about the drunkenness of things being various. That sense of intoxicating variety hadn’t occurred to me before reading Snow, but ever since I did it’s been a part of my world view. I borrow Macneice’s insight, as you might borrow mine from another poem. It’s a conversation that carries on even after death.

‘Being a poet’ isn’t about knowing how many lines there are in a pantoum, or getting published in Poetry Review. It’s a way of seeing, and you can learn it. What all good poets have in common is an appetite for looking. They notice things, and communicate in a way that makes the reader notice them too. Poets (like many other artists) develop a habit of paying close attention. If you notice everything around you – how a particular person speaks, how light falls on the water, what your own reaction is to a news story, how people behave in a pub fight or a petrol station – then you have the raw material for poetry.

After that, everything is selection. This is a whole different can of worms, which we’ll address worm by worm in the next few weeks. Select the right words, and discard the wrong ones. Work out as you write exactly what it is you’re trying to say, and what the best way is to express it. What could be simpler? Almost anything. You’ll never master it completely but you can hope to do it better each time. In the old sense of the word, writing a poem is a meditation – what my dictionary explains as “the act of thinking about something carefully, calmly, seriously, and for some time, or an instance of such thinking”.

Here’s an exercise to develop that habit of looking; the hardest, simplest and best I’ve ever devised. Go outside and select one square metre of ground (one yard, if you’re feeling Imperial). It doesn’t have to be a particularly interesting metre of ground. Now: stand or sit in your metre of ground and write down everything you notice about it, without judgment. Simply describe. The fallen leaves are not ‘melancholy’, they are ‘wet’ or ‘brown’ or ‘one of them is split across the middle’. The paving stones may have a texture like fabric; there may be a cigarette butt or a snail shell in the middle of one. There may be a footprint. What can you hear, smell, taste? Are you feeling foolish and thinking this is a waste of time? It’s an exercise in noticing, and it’s a palate cleanser for the harder work of writing about things that matter to you; but if you are just paying attention, then you are learning the most important lesson about How to Be a Poet.

4 Replies to “On Looking”

  1. Really enjoying the blogs so far! I’d never thought to consider looking or noticing as a principle point, but now find I’m in agreement!

  2. People often expect that when you lose your sight that you get superhero powers with your other senses like Daredevil does in the film / series. You don’t. Well I didn’t anyway! But I pay a lot more attention to the sounds I am hearing now that vision isn’t in the driving seat. You’re spot on when you say about paying close attention to things —those details are exactly what you need to bring life into a poem, and like you say, you must pay attention to all the senses you have. Sight is not the only sense but it is very much the dominant sense for a sighted person, so I’d recommend closing your eyes for at least 5 minutes while you’re sitting in your square 🙂 … and when you pass me on my knees in the street I’ve probably fallen over, but if anybody asks I’m just observing the texture of the paving stones 😉

  3. One of my favourite hobbies is to sit and watch people – doesn’t matter where and they never spot you doing it. Shopping centres are a cheap place to practise. Poetry readings and musical recitals require more planning but can be a lot of fun. Love it when somebody walks out in a huff. Ditto when somebody falls asleep. And if you can achieve both at the same event then you must be doing something special!

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