So Close You'll Hate It - An Exercise

Two weeks ago, I introduced some thoughts on “scale” in poetry, arguing that poetry’s special purpose is to reveal as profound that which would otherwise seem mundane and obvious, by providing a kind of slanted veil of metaphor (how’s that for a slanted veil of explanation?). 

An example was William’s “The Red Wheelbarrow”, but I could also reference Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” (otherwise saying that the world, while broken, is beautiful), Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (otherwise expressing that life is long and tiresome), and, possibly, most other successful poetry.

If a poet’s task, then, is to occlude simple things in a paradoxical attempt to reveal their profundity, then she or he must practice ways of seeing the world differently. One way to see the world differently is to change your sense of scale. 

The way a photographer may squat down or crawl close or find a high seat, in order to capture a vision most people do not see at eye level, so a poet should poke around, get close to, get far away from, look over the shoulder of, his or her subject. In an effort to do that, I am going to offer one of my favorite exercises involving one of my favorite things: lists.

I find lists helpful in pushing me beyond my preferred limits, and I think you’ll see why. This week’s exercise is to find an object close by where you’re sitting — the more mundane and specific the better — and then write a list of at least fifteen descriptive facts about that object. For some of you, this may be easy; for me, it is not. I challenge you, if you find this easy, to list more and more things until it gets extremely difficult, and then list five more. Trust me, there are definitely many more facts about this item than you’ve listed, but you may be surprised how quickly you run out of things to list. 

Hopefully, in the end, you will have listed some descriptions that surprised you and that hadn’t stood out before. When you’re forced to look closely at something you’ve come to take for granted, you begin to see a whole world of details in front of you. Your mind is used to treating objects as singular things, with a few useful traits that stand out because they are important in daily life. There is so much more that we don’t pick up on, however. Usually, this is fine, and to be hyper-aware of all the details would be debilitating. But practicing this kind of observation can be powerful fuel for the poet.

Some of you may feel inspired by the perspective you’ve gained from tightening your sense of scale in this exercise. If you would like, go on and construct a poem or a paragraph of description, either about the item, or using the item as a metaphor. Even if you don’t decide to use the item, certain details may stand out to you in a new way. Practicing this kind of observation cannot help but redirect you, though, and provide you with plenty of material for great description and metaphor.

I’ve focused on poets here, but I should also say that this exercise is just as useful for prose writers as well. All writers depend on their powers of observation to inform their choices of metaphors and descriptions. When you find yourself blocked, treat this like a meditative exercise: stare at an object, and list everything you can think of. Then when you’ve done it all, list at least five more. 

Share some of your more surprising discoveries below!

 
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