Seeing and Reading (converting pictures into words)
According to some, the work of writers is to convert what they see, think
and hear into words in such a way that the reader can recreate from the
page what the writers "saw" in their minds' eyes. People think that reading
and seeing are 2 very different activities - that reading is sequential but a
picture is instantly taken in. This isn't true. Isherwood wrote a novel called
"I am a Camera" but our eyesight is best in an area as small as a thumbnail
at arm's length, so our eyes jump around, often returning to objects for
another look. Some think that "in each visual configuration, be it simple or
complex, there exists a built-in trajectory for the observer's gaze." [Gan91,
p.25]. Certainly our eyes look at faces, bright colours, doors and vanishing
points before exploring the peripheries. Even when we're staring at
something our eyes are never still - saccadic movements keep the image
fresh upon the retina.
Sometimes poets try to help the reader share the original sensations by
- trying for physio-realism, describing exactly what the eye sees rather
than describing a room by mechanically scanning around it. It's a little
like the approach that radio sports commentators adopt. The advantages of
such realism are counteracted by repetition which risks losing the reader's
attention. However, the slow-motion effect produced by trying to record
things this way can sometimes increase people's awareness.
- making the reader dart around the text as if it were a painting. We don't
usually read a poem straight from beginning to end anyway. In ordinary
text, 10% of saccades are backwards [Ger94]. When text is difficult, readers
tend to make longer fixations, shorter saccades and more regressions. The
poet can make a pattern of interconnected motifs that can only be
perceived by "reading over". Resistance to sequential reading is created by
"recurrent themes, motifs, ... foreshadowing and flashback" [Col91, p. 98].
Rhyme and Obscurity can help too. Poems that use this technique have
Spatial Form. It's common in modernist poetry (which often "asks its
readers to suspend the process of individual reference temporarily until
the entire pattern of internal references can be apprehended as a unity"
[Fra45]), but Browning did it too [Chi86]. Reading such a poem the 'wrong'
way is like trying to look at a picture through the wrong end of a telescope.
Things to do
- Look at a picture (the bigger the better), a person, or enter a room. Try to
monitor how your eyes roam. Try to record in words the succession of
images that your eyes take in without commenting or analysing. (Use a
toilet roll!). This method is used in prose (Nouveau Roman).
- Write a poem inspired by a painting (but beware, many editors have a
bias against such poems).
- Assess the physiological realism of a poem. E.g.
a woman at an airport departure gate,
held in a man's embrace.
Which should come first, the man or the departure gate?
- [Chi86] "Modernist Form", J. S. Childs, Associated University Presses, 1986.
- [Coll91] "The Poetics of the Mind's Eye", C Collins, Univ of Pennsylvania,
- [Fra45] "Spatial Form in Modern Literature", Joseph Frank, Sewanee
- [Gan91] "Reading Pictures, Viewing Texts", C. Gandelman, Indiana Univ
- [Ger94] "Handbook of Psycholinguistics", M.A. Gernsbacher (ed),
Academic Press, 1994
Back to workshop index
Tim Love, April 1996.