Monday, 13 February 2012

Seeing Things - The Vision of the Poet

Van Gogh: A Pair of Shoes 

Seeing things: The vision of the poet

We've seen that the Old Irish word for poet, fili, comes from a root meaning 'seer' and is cognate with Welsh gweled, 'to see'.  But what does the poet see? Nothing less, I’d suggest, than the invisible in the visible - to rephrase the words of the French symbolist artist, Odilon Redon

What does this mean? In early societies poetry was entwined with prophecy – a divinely inspired utterance or revelation, often about what is to come. Our English word ‘seer’ refers to a person who sees visions, an inspired person, a prophet. Yet the poet does not necessarily need to see visions or prophesy to be a seer. I think there are several different ways by which the poet sees the invisible and mediates it to the reader or listener through words to make it visible. (Naturally, when I say ‘see’ I don’t mean only seeing with the eyes but include other sense-perceptions, as well as intellectual cognition and intuition – a perception via the unconscious, to use Jung’s definition.)

These are my suggestions for the ways the poet sees what is often invisible to others:

      1. By seeing things differently to the commonly perceived view.
      2. By seeing things that aren’t there, that is, seeing things that aren’t there according to others, or to ‘consensus reality'
      3. By seeing into the nature of things – insight.
      4. By seeing things more clearly than others – being a keen observer of objects, people etc.
      5.  By seeing ‘through’ things, beyond mere appearance.
      6. By seeing things that are intangible – abstract ideas, objects and situations as metaphor or symbols
      7. By seeing things before they happen – foretelling, associated with prophecy.
      8. By seeing visions –  these may be supernatural, often accompanied by revelation, in a state of heightened perception or a dream, or a trance. Or they may be arrived at via the imagination.

Of course these categories blur and overlap with each other. For instance, seeing things clearly may involve insight, seeing into the nature of things or seeing through things as when a poet is not fooled by some commercial or political manipulation.

Most, if not all, types of poetry are included in these ways of seeing: humorous poets see things differently, satirical poets see through things, mystical poets see visions or see into the nature of things and so on. But the poet doesn’t have to be a mystic or to have visions to be a poet, although s/he may be, what is required is to perceive beyond the ordinary, beyond the  matter-of-fact, the mundane - the prosaic.


Seamus Heaney: how a poet sees things

‘Seeing Things’ (1991) is the inspired title of a volume of poetry by Seamus Heaney. Inside there is a sequence of 3 poems with the collection’s title. In I, Heaney presents us with several types of seeing, from his observation of the people in a boat and his own fear to an out of the body experience of looking down as if from another boat ‘sailing through air’ to see ‘how riskily we fared into the morning/And loved in vain our bare, bowed, numbered heads’. 

In II he gives us a description of a carving, on the stone façade of a cathedral, of Jesus standing in a river and John the Baptist pouring water over his head. ‘…Lines/Hard and thin and sinuous represent/The flowing river. Down between the lines/ Little antic fish are all go. Nothing else/ And yet in that utter visibility/ The stone’s alive with what’s invisible’. Likewise, the poem also is alive with what is invisible.

In III, he conjures up a vision of his father remembering an incident when his father came back from the river after an accident, an incident which prefigured his ‘imminent ghosthood’.

Seamus Heaney often has a unique way of seeing objects. He describes them in three dimensions, not only how they look but their weight, the space they occupy, the way they feel to the people who use them. He explores how people interact with tools, how they express themselves through them. They become a metaphor for the interaction between the material and the intangible, the physical and the emotional or spiritual. I can’t help thinking of him when reading something that Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

We are symbols and inhabit symbols; workman, work and tools, words and things, birth and death, all    are emblems; but we sympathise with the symbols, and, being infatuated with the economical uses of things, we do not know that they are thoughts. The poet, by an ulterior intellectual perception, gives them a power which makes their old use forgotten, and puts eyes, and a tongue, into every dumb and inanimate object. (The Poet)

In the collection ‘Station Island’ (1984) there is a sequence called Shelf Life which has poems about a granite chip, a smoothing iron, old pewter, an iron spike, a stone from Delphi and a snowshoe. Old Smoothing Iron is one of my favourite Heaney poems. In it he enables us to see what he saw: how the compact wedge rode the back of the stove like a tug at anchor, how the woman spat in its iron face and aimed it into the linen like a plane, ‘like the resentment of women’. And finally he shows us something about the paradoxical nature of work, in an almost visceral way, in the mechanics of ironing – to move a certain mass a certain distance and ‘feel exact and equal to it’ is to ‘Feel dragged upon. And buoyant.’


Describe a mundane object like an iron or a snowshoe as objectively as you can – its colour, size, weight, use etc. Then look at the object again and allow your imagination to come into play; let the object become a portal to something else.

Or, write a poem about Van Gogh’s Pair of Shoes, the illustration at the head of this post.


  1. Beautiful post Hilaire. I particularly like your list of the ways a poet sees what is invisible. And from my own experience we see intuitively, and seem to naturally see things poetically, lyrically...

  2. I love your blog!! You're very talented. You officially have a new follower :) feel free to follow mine as well and keep up the good work! I look forward to reading more.

  3. Thank you both for your comments and for your blogs offering lyricism and optimism :-)

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