The Art of the Zoom

Lac Manicouagan as seen by NASA's Terra satellite in 2001.  Image credit: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL,MISR Team

Lac Manicouagan as seen by NASA's Terra satellite in 2001. 

Image credit: NASA/GSFC/LaRC/JPL,MISR Team

Welcome to the first of Lodestone’s substantive blog posts! Today, I’m offering some of my thoughts on a short out-of-context quote from poet Henry Beston discussing poetry and scale, and, of course, naturalism and astronomy.

Maria Popova’s work at her Brain Pickings website (www.brainpickings.org) is likely to show up a lot in my posts. She can’t seem to take a break from reading and is constantly sharing insights and wisdom from all kinds of thoughtful people: writers and thinkers and philosophers and religious leaders. My favorite aspect of her site is the effortless synthesis she invokes across disciplines. Brain Pickings points out connections between all of these thinkers and highlights a kind of web of meaning and influence that connects them all. 

Recently, she featured a little write-up on Henry Beston, a poet I had not heard of, but who I now intend to investigate a bit more. Beston (1888 - 1968) is a poet laureate and naturalist who lived on a farm in Maine. Popova shares a particular quote of his from Northern Farm, in which he writes of smallness and scale: 

“When this twentieth century of ours became obsessed with a passion for mere size, what was lost sight of was the ancient wisdom that the emotions have their own standards of judgment and their own sense of scale. In the emotional world a small thing can touch the heart and the imagination every bit as much as something impressively gigantic; a fine phrase is as good as an epic, and a small brook in the quiet of a wood can have its say with a voice more profound than the thunder of any cataract. Who would live happily in the country must be wisely prepared to take great pleasure in little things.
Country living is a pageant of Nature and the year; it can no more stay fixed than a movement in music, and as the seasons pass, they enrich life far more with little things than with great, with remembered moments rather than the slower hours. A gold and scarlet leaf floating solitary on the clear, black water of the morning rain barrel can catch the emotion of a whole season, and chimney smoke blowing across the winter moon can be a symbol of all that is mysterious in human life.”

Those of us who have tried our hands at writing (and I assume also those of us in the visual arts as well) are familiar with the importance of perspective, distance, and scale, not only in the creation of art but in viewing our lives and this world in any kind of patient and hopeful way. 

Beston cautions us to be aware of smallness in the world and the scale of emotions; cautions us not to overlook smaller happenings or to put too much meaning into larger events that are important only on their face. Poetry is the perfect place to exercise this appreciation. A professor (I cannot remember which, I’m sorry) once told me that poetic themes tend towards the simple; that poetry attempts to express the mundane in a slanted, glancing way so as to illumine new perspectives and shades of meaning where they might have been overlooked. A story or declarative statement telling someone that a sunset is beautiful has little power compared to a poem’s appeal to metaphor and imagery. And so it seems especially the poem’s realm to practice the appreciation of scale. 

One of my favorite examples of poetry that does this well is “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. This poem is often mocked by my friends and fellow writers as being simple and vapid, but it has always seemed especially poignant to me. It pops into my head randomly and often, usually in the shower or when I’m taking a walk in the mountains by my parents’ home in Colorado. In just sixteen words punctuated by a few powerful adjectives (also one of the best arguments for purging adjectives from your work, elevating the few left), he has expressed a scene so filled with nostalgia and memory that I couldn’t help but memorize it immediately. Don’t mock me — I realize it’s not difficult to memorize sixteen words, but I don’t bother to memorize many poems. Some day, I’m sure, I’ll share my appreciation for Williams, but for now, take a fresh look at him, in light of Beston’s thoughts on smallness.

 

Beston’s words also bring to mind for me a conversation between Randall Munroe, the comic artist and writer behind xkcd.org, and the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. Discussing Hadfield’s time aboard the International Space Station, Munroe asked whether Hadfield remembered passing over Lac Manicouagan, a hundred-million-year-old crater in Canada that has been flooded and turned into a lake as part of a hydroelectric project. Hadfield gave a response that stuck with me: 

“We think the Earth was hit by a few such asteroids at the same time. It’s something that really seeps into you, orbiting up there -- you get a sense of the age of the world. Everyone gets so concerned about their particular 80 years on Earth, as if somehow the entire universe was a gigantic pyramid assembling to this little point, right now, which is my lifespan — the only worthwhile end product of 13.5bn years of existence. What started seeping into me on, I don’t know, my second-thousandth time around the world, seeing all the ancient scars, was the incredible temporal patience of the world.” 

Hadfield’s notion at first glance seems to be at the far end of the spectrum from Beston’s, since it involves zooming out to view the largest of things. Inside this perspective, he is struck by the “incredible temporal patience of the world,” itself a delightfully poetic statement. Though Hadfield speaks in defense of largeness, he invokes the same theme as Beston: that there is a kind of distance to nature’s particularities and generalities that pushes against human pettiness. While Beston speaks in favor smallness, I have the sense that he would appreciate Hadfield’s largeness as well. Both Beston and Hadfield have drawn our attention to the importance of scale, and it seems to me that dealing with scale and distance in literature is especially the realm of poetry, by means of poetry’s primary tool: metaphor.

As we begin making better use of our blog here at Lodestone, we hope to share more of our thoughts on writing, including essays on craft, posts from writers working “in the field,” and exercises for writing. Over the next month, we will be sharing a few exercises that we think can help us gain more awareness of scale in our poetry and fiction (and for sure, scale and perspective matter in short stories and novels as well). We encourage you to do some of these exercises with us as we go forward and to let us know your thoughts on how an appreciation of scale informs your art. Happy writing, Stoners!

P.S. Some of the other editors may not appreciate me calling you Stoners, but I’m going to claim it as my own. Go in peace.

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