Sunday, 16 January 2011

The physical world pours in

(if you haven't started writing small stones yet, there's plenty of time... all the time in the world)

Thanks to Jacqueline for her small stone photo of Sumi's paws. There are some very fine photos and small stones on Olivia's blog too. And many many many many many many finely observed small stones being scattered by you, fine reader, and everyone else in the river, all across the world.

Our very own in-the-river Claire is currently at third place for the Shorty Awards in the Poetry category - if you'd like to vote for her go here, or Tweet something like this: "I nominate @ for a Shorty Award in because... she's in the river! "

I found a lovely essay by Linda Gregg this week (The Art of Finding), whilst doing research for my 'Writing as Spiritual Practice' course (only one space left for March, but I'm hoping to run it again in May and September so email me if you'd like to go down on the reserve list or the might-be-interested-list.) 

I wanted to share this paragraph in full as it fits so perfectly with what we're trying to do. 

Do share your experiences of writing small stones in the comments section, and with each other. Do visit each other's blogs. Do remember that this exercise is to help us enjoy the world - and to help us get right up close to it, so close we can see the hairs on its nose. 

Keep up the sterling work!

"I am astonished in my teaching to find how many poets are nearly blind to the physical world. They have ideas, memories, and feelings, but when they write their poems they often see them as similes. To break this habit, I have my students keep a journal in which they must write, very briefly, six things they have seen each day—not beautiful or remarkable things, just things. This seemingly simple task usually is hard for them. 

At the beginning, they typically "see" things in one of three ways: artistically, deliberately, or not at all. Those who see artistically instantly decorate their descriptions, turning them into something poetic: the winter trees immediately become "old men with snow on their shoulders," or the lake looks like a "giant eye." The ones who see deliberately go on and on describing a brass lamp by the bed with painful exactness. And the ones who see only what is forced on their attention: the grandmother in a bikini riding on a skateboard, or a bloody car wreck. But with practice, they begin to see carelessly and learn a kind of active passivity until after a month nearly all of them have learned to be available to seeing—and the physical world pours in. 

Their journals fill up with lovely things like, "the mirror with nothing reflected in it." This way of seeing is important, even vital to the poet, since it is crucial that a poet see when she or he is not looking—just as she must write when she is not writing. To write just because the poet wants to write is natural, but to learn to see is a blessing. The art of finding in poetry is the art of carrying the sacred to the world, the invisible to the human."


  1. So very true! I often use the work of Mary Oliver as a guide for my writing students. She doesn't overwrite, ever. Simple and what is, I tell them (and myself) simple and what is...

  2. I like that "six things" idea. I'm the poetic sort so I tend to go for the vivid things. I could do with taking more notice - rather than hunting. Good post!

  3. I cringed with self-recognition when I read: "Those who see artistically instantly decorate their descriptions, turning them into something poetic: the winter trees immediately become 'old men with snow on their shoulders,'..." (In one of my recent stones I used an old man as a simile for a train.)

    Taken out of context, it almost sounds like Gregg is saying descriptive language and similes are always bad. I clicked the link to read the full article and I think this part of her intro helps to clarify:
    "Best of all, of course, is when the language and other means of poetry combine with the meaning to make us experience what we understand. We are most likely to find this union by starting with the insides of the poem rather than with its surface, with the content rather than with the packaging."

  4. Wow, six things! I'm going to try, but I post on Wednesdays.....this is a great project!

  5. Advise I'll try, Fiona - thank you.

  6. I apologize if my last comment seemed critical - feeling a bit defensive... wanted to also say thank you, Fiona, for sharing this insightful post and for your continued encouragement. I, too, will give the six things idea a try.

  7. Kelly,

    I know what you mean. I immediately bristled when I read the entire article which has it's good points and it's wispy meaningless moments as well--particularly her closing line about carrying the sacred to the world..." Left me thinking that she can't help herself from speaking poet speak, can she?

    And I mean absolutely no offense when I say that. It's just being honest of what I thought about Gregg's article; it's what I "saw" about her. LOL.

    I went on to read a few of her poems to get a feel for her style and maybe get a more concrete idea of what she's talking about--this noticing, this "seeing."

    Because I am interesting developing this:

    "But with practice, they begin to see carelessly and learn a kind of active passivity until after a month nearly all of them have learned to be available to seeing—and the physical world pours in."

    Man, I need a step by step, paint by numbers instruction, I guess.

    I too will give the six things a try.
    Thanks Fiona for giving me something to think about.
    You're awesome.

  8. This is a very interesting post and has brought about an equally interesting discussion.

    I am the opposite to this artistic way: I'm a haiku writer and therefore observe and write things down in a straightforward manner without metaphor, simile, or using words that indicate judgement.

    So for me, this month is about getting away from only seeing the world through haiku eyes, about exploring how I can write things down using more descriptive words, about giving myself room to move without the strictness of the haiku form. I'm trying to exercise my imagination more, not less. To see what else I have to offer.

    I write haiku because I'm naturally good at it, and by this I mean the way of haiku is a good fit for me as I view the world in a more straightforward way: I call 'a spade a spade' as the old saying goes, I would never think of calling trees with snow old men! But I've also trained myself to observe and then write in this clear, concise way. (I have written on my blog about how haiku writing has helped my other writing).

    My challenge is to be able to engage in the world in different ways and express that in a form contrary to my nature. Writing small stones is helping me do this. Thanks Fiona!

  9. Thanks for a great article. I came across the Hindu concept of 'darshan' this week, which means in Sanskrit 'auspicious viewing' - and it is about the relationship/interaction between the viewer and the object, which leads to a heightening of consciousness - she says in a very simplifed way, not yet having a full understanding. I am interested in exploring this more, in relationship to the art of seeing. Has anyone else come across this/explored this in this type of context?

  10. I'd call those 6 things "mindful seeing" or "paying mindful attention", the second phrase could be more meditative. So you'd be seeing without comment or discussion in your mind. Does that fit?

    I liked your encouragement about making comments.I needed that nudge. Thanks yet again.

  11. I loved this! Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

    "...the art of carrying the sacred to the world, the invisible to the human." That's powerful stuff!!

    ~ Lori

  12. Thank you all - interesting how the bit that rubs someone up the wrong way is exactly the bit another person loves... and wouldn't life be boring if it was otherwise. Darshan does sound interesting. I think we need plain seeing AND polishing, but I suppose it depends on what you're hoping to get/do with your writing. And the bit you've quoted got me too, Lori, but I can see that it would turn others off. Let the river continue.....

  13. Thank you.
    Everything is sacred when you look with sacred eyes...

  14. Reading this post makes me pause. I think I have mistaken the writing of small stones for the writing of poetry. I recognise myself as one of those people that "sees artistically", needing to make everything into a beautiful simile. So many of my stones are similes!! This post was such an eye-opener. It's reminding me why I wanted to do this project to begin with. To let things be as they are, to resist the urge to make them "better".

  15. I believe in this truth "it is crucial that a poet see when she or he is not looking—just as she must write when she is not writing."

    I keep a camera in my pocket, because I am often walking and don't have a chance to stop and write something. However, walking almost always triggers the seeing eye in my writing soul. So I stop and snap a photo to keep a physical memory of what I was thinking at the time. I don't always write about it but the image triggers the poetic memory.

    Thanks Fiona. Beautifully articulated.

  16. Well, count me among the ones who actually really likes and appreciates what Gregg is trying to get at here (and among the ones who really appreciate the concept of writing revealing the sacred and invisible). But I don't think Gregg is anti-simile, or anti-metaphor, or anti- any other tool in the writers tool box.

    On the other hand, I'm not sure I think that this essay is fully successful at what it's trying to do. Because as much as I agree with what I think she's trying to get at, I did find the essay hard to get through. In part, I felt there were places where she started to explain a concept, but could have taken more time to clarify her points; and in part, I felt like she got sidetracked by personal examples to the detriment of her points.

    Example: I think the concept of "resonant sources" is probably *critical* to what she's trying to say. But I don't feel as if the long section about growing up on a mountain in California is necessarily doing the job of explaining that point as well as she might think--unless the reader already has a pretty visceral sense of what she might mean by resonant sources.

    Wow. I could go on about this for a while. (I guess that's what *my own* blog is for, eh? Maybe later...) ;-)

  17. "...she must write when she is not writing..."

    Writing a poem may take me three minutes. Getting my head in the right place to write it may take me days. In a sense, I'm always writing poetry and I actually have to curb that impulse/style when I'm writing more mundane stuff. The employer does not want the annual report in couplets. :-)

    "...way of seeing is important, even vital..."

    To my mind, the thing which distinguishes artists of any sort is what/how they see when they look at the world. What they express in whatever medium is just craft. It's they only way they can communicate their vision, but the greatest craftmanship is wasted without the vision which reveals something previously hidden.

  18. Thanks all for your comments. Do enjoy reading them!

  19. I'm enjoying doing the stones. I find I'm really looking at things more closely. Seeking out small experiences to write about. I'll
    carry on doing this. Devote one of many many, as yet pristine and untouched new notebooks, just to writing up small stones.