Tag Archives: perception


New Year’s morning –

everything is in blossom!

    I feel about average

From After the Gentle Poet Kobayashi Issa

By Robert Hass

IMG_7191The poet I’ve started the year with is Robert Hass, my interest piqued by an essay on him in Tony Hoagland’s fascinating Real Sofistikashun (Graywolf Press, 2006).

…Hass might be described as a speculative describer who has made a tender tentativeness part of his style.  Even moving through his own mind, it seems, he has the delicacy of an ecologist who wants to record an environment without disturbing a leaf.  At the same time that Hass is tonally tentative, he is also resourcefully inquisitive, ever probing into other sources and pockets of consideration.  It is the paradoxical blend of these qualities – gentility combined with a probing persistence – that best describes his poetics.  His ability to register and collate the subtleties of subjective and objective is exceptional.

That overlapping of subjective and objective is a tricky thing to pull off – anchoring the imagination in the real without getting its feet wet – but it lies at the heart of everything we perceive and might write about.

All knowledge rests on the coincidence of an object with a subject.



I was immediately drawn to one of Hass’s poems called ‘The Problem of Describing Trees’:

The Problem of Describing Trees

The aspen glitters in the wind

And that delights us.


The leaf flutters, turning, because that motion in the heat of August

Protects its cells from drying out.  Likewise the leaf

Of the cottonwood.


The gene pool threw up a wobbly stem

And the tree danced.  No.

The tree capitalized.

No.  There are limits to saying,

In language, what the tree did.


It is good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us.


Dance with me, dancer.  Oh, I will.


Mountains, sky,

The aspen doing something in the wind.


I recognize that struggle of saying ‘what is’ without adding or subtracting anything, while still holding true to the I/eye’s response.  I particularly like the line:

It’s good sometimes for poetry to disenchant us.

I seem to keep coming across talk about the need for ‘re-enchantment’, based on the idea that we have lost our sense of the mystery of things.  While that may be true, it is also possible to look at our current situation another way:  that we are burdened by too much enchantment, bewitched by the media and the material world so utterly we have lost any sense of what’s underneath all the glitter and hunger.  Despite its capacity for truth-telling and clarity, poetry (as an expression of our cluttered, foggy, polluted minds) can also tell it so slant that it tells it wrong.  Just so much more smoke and mirrors.

Coleridge again, in 1796:

Poetry – excites us to artificial feelings – makes us callous to real ones.

IMG_7362We mistake words for the things themselves and hold onto them only inasmuch as they serve our particular view of things.  The words don’t care – they’re only words.  Aren’t language, views, poems all just our own open questions?  On a good day we hear them singing and can dance.


Iowa, January

In the long winter nights, a farmer’s dreams are narrow.

Over and over, he enters the furrow.


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I spent most of this afternoon looking at a buttercup.  An exercise in Goethe’s system of observation, I was testing my powers of perception and a wayward creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) on the edge of my lawn was a convenient subject.  I liked the idea of giving such an easily overlooked flower so much attention.  Although I did have a rival – an elegant bronze fly feeding on its pollen.  The process is that you look closely, paying attention to every single detail of the plant’s structure, its colour, habit and ‘feel’ – much in the way that a botanical illustrator might in order to be able to make an accurate representation.


As if part of me knew that it wasn’t a plant to touch or taste, I discovered when I looked it up later that the highly acrid buttercup is poisonous to cattle and can cause blisters in humans.  Beggars used to rub them on their skin to induce sores and elicit sympathy.  An old cure for lunacy was to hang buttercups in a bag round someone’s neck (probably a poet’s).  Its original name was butterflower or crowfoot. You can see from the photo that some creature wasn’t put off by the flavour…


Observing the buttercup so closely, in sunshine and under cloud, I hope I was able to enter into an intimate understanding with it and come to know what Goethe called its ‘archetype’ – a process not unlike the way I tend to approach writing a poem about a flower.  Unsurprisingly, what was suggested was a child-like quality, playful, radiant and very strong.  We used to hold a buttercup under each other’s chins to see if we liked butter.  I’m not sure children still do that, which seems a terrible pity.

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