How a Poet Sees

Francis Cartier, Ph.D.
Mensa Education & Research Foundation

Why and how does a poet see things more clearly than others do? A quasischolarly, lighthearted essay on how a poet perceives everyday things and the joys and anguish of life. An unabashedly biased examination of quotations from psychologists and other creative writers, with both rational and presumptuous interpretations. Listeners may be appalled, entertained and/or transformed.

This is your poet speaking. … Passengers will please unfasten any mental seatbelts.

In 1918, Guillaume Apollinaire published a book called Calligrammes. About 50 years ago, comedy writer Roger Price, inspired by Apollinaire, began publishing hundreds of wonderfully funny visual puzzles he called Droodles. Droodles can give us remarkable insights into how the mind perceives things. My favorite is in Figure 1.

[Fig. 1 goes about here.]

Do you see what this is? …. This is a bear … climbing the other side of a tree.

Now you see it! Right? Where did it come from?

Research has taught us much about how we see, but there are still many fascinating mysteries about it, about what we believe we see, and why we sometimes don't see at all. As just one example, I've read a lot of the research on reading and, frankly, I have no clear idea of how I am reading this!


Now imagine yourself looking in a mirror. Everything is reversed from right to left, but not from top to bottom. Why? Think for a moment before you read on.

Why are you puzzled?

It's because the question is wrong! Actually, the image is not reversed at all. Top is at the top. Bottom is at the bottom. Left is at the left and right is at the right. You instinctively use your right hand to comb the hair on your right side, don't you? Words can trick you about what you think you see.

Every psychologist understands that we don't get meaning from the world we live in. Some say we construct it. I prefer to say that we impose meaning on our perceptions. Among those who do that are politicians, criminals, poets and we psychologists. Often, other peoples' language usage profoundly influences what we see or believe we see.

What's more, what you believe you see is even more influenced by what you say.

Forensic psychologists have been doing a lot of fascinating and disturbing research on the accuracy of testimony by eyewitnesses of crimes and accidents. I don't have time to report it all here, but all psychotherapists should be aware of it. I'll mention only an old, classic study by Professor Eunice Belbin at, I think, Cambridge University, about 50 years ago. I'm reporting this from memory.

Dr. Belbin made an appointment with each of her students, then made each one wait alone in a reception room for several minutes, seated facing a bicycle safety poster.

She then asked each one into her office. She asked half of them to write down a detailed description of the poster. The other half were not asked to describe it. In both cases, she

then showed an exact copy of the poster and said, "This poster may or may not be identical to the one you saw. Is it the same or not?"

Most of those who had not been asked to write a description said it was the same.

However, many who had written down their descriptions said that it was different and stuck adamantly to the mistaken descriptions they had written.

In other words, once we commit ourselves to an erroneous perception, we tend to defend it even in the face of reality. "I said it, so I must believe it."

Charles Darwin

"Actions that were first voluntary, soon became habitual, and at last hereditary, and then came to be performed even in opposition to the will."

Frog's eyes

The frog's eye and brain are not equipped to process information about static objects, only things that move. Information about stationary objects is blocked.

Humans, too, are victims of selective blindness. We often fail to see things around us because they are too familiar and seem to convey no new information, or because we are focusing our attention elsewhere.

We don't know nearly enough about attention though it's a vital survival function. Visual attention seems to be a pair of processes. The first, the process of focusing on a stimulus or idea, has received a lot of research. The other equally important process involves concurrent decisions about which stimuli to ignore.

Let me emphasize that. Visual attention is always partly, and often largely, selective blindness to other stimuli considered to be irrelevant at the moment.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Sherlock Holmes often says, " Doctor Watson, you see but you do not observe." We'll explore that now because poets, like detectives, do not merely see, but observe.

Louis Pasteur

"Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind."

I once developed a course in problem solving for Air Force staff officers. In the section on gathering information, I wanted to include lessons to teach observation. As part of my search for helpful ideas, I went back, as I often do, to William James. James had a footnote to J. S. Mill. Mill said (again this is from memory), "There is not properly an art of observation. One must prepare oneself by learning everything possible about the subject to be observed."

One day, doing on-the-spot research on observation, I was following an aircraft maintenance officer inspecting a repair hangar. In an empty area, he stopped and made a note on his clipboard. I asked what he noted. He said, "There's supposed to be a fire extinguisher right here."

Aha! Mill and Pasteur were right! The prepared observer sees not only what is there, but also what's missing!

Jonathan Swift

"Vision is the art of seeing the invisible."

Alfred North Whitehead

"Familiar things happen, and mankind does not bother about them. It requires a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious."

A poet often does just that: analyses the obvious. A poet's unusual mind may habitually or deliberately become ingenuous, with childlike curiosity and clarity of vision. It's a kind of courageous vulnerability. Like the uninhibited child in the fable, a poet sees that the Emperor is naked. Why? Two of the reasons are inherent in that enlightening fable. Like a child, a poet can be immune to both social pressure and fear of being thought a fool.

A poet is also capable of escaping from our customary blindness to familiar stimuli. A poet may examine a prosaic object or incident, and bring his eye, memory and imagination into an interpretation of it. The finest example I know is Wordsworth's "View of Tintern Abbey." I wish I had time to read it to you. (It is included, however, in the Appendix to this talk.) Instead, consider this shorter poem. It's trivial by comparison to Wordsworth, but may make my point. It's one of about a hundred poems I've written about what I see on my morning walk.

The Secret

This young mother and her daughter,
Perhaps going on five,
Are both dressed in clean Thrift-Shop.

The girl is prancing along,
Grins skippingly alternating with laughter.
She's chattering in a giggling voice
That masks (from me, at least)
Any clue to the source of her joy.

The mother clutches her hand
And stares blankly ahead
As though dreading their destination
Or some grim place they started from.

She knows something the little girl
Doesn't know.

Perhaps many others saw that pair and had similar thoughts. A major difference is that, as Monir Saleh said last March, a poet writes it down.

Of the many writings of Francis Bacon, I most admire the list of fallacies he compiled in his Organum. My favorite is what he called the First Idol of the Tribe: "To suppose greater order and regularity in nature than is really there."

The human mind is so intolerant of ambiguity and disorder that it habitually generates, imposes and then believes its own constructions of order and regularity. I know a few psychologists who sometimes succumb to that illusion – and stick to it for a lifetime.

On the other hand, a poet's perceptions mature and change. The great Shakespeare scholar, Frank Baxter, said, "I reread Hamlet every year and see something new each time – and that's not because Hamlet has changed."

Last February, Norman Rosenblood wrote that Freud "refers to the artist's capability of entering into his unconscious in a way most people cannot…. [an artist] turns away from reality and transfers all his interest, and his libido too, to the wishful constructions of his life of phantasy."

That is mostly nonsense. Perhaps it may be true of some poets who need psychotherapy. Sylvia Plath, for instance. Most poets, though, are remarkable because they see and confront reality with fearless clarity. Many poets are so remarkably mentally healthy that we perceive them as abnormal.

And, indeed, poets are abnormal, but not because they have some special kind of perception that others don't have. Quite the opposite! A poet is devoid of, or somehow circumvents, the common culture's selective blindness, inhibitions and other barriers to clear perception that I've been talking about. We often call the result "creative thinking."

Actually, there is no such thing as creative thinking. There is only thinking. But real thinking is so rare that when we encounter it, we feel the need to celebrate the occasion with a special adjective.

Most people have frog's eyes and can't see anything that is "standing still." A poet can see both moving objects and those that are stationary or even "immovable".

You may take that as either a poetic metaphor or as a psychological metaphor. It works both ways. Freud expressed himself in metaphor far more often than some have noticed. Freud once said that the mind is a "poetry making organ." As I interpret that, he was referring to thinking in metaphors.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

"[A poet's] language is vitally metaphorical: that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things…."

It has been argued that a poet is different because a poet actually sees in metaphor. I do not find that argument compelling. First of all, most of us see in metaphor about as often as we see in reality. And we often mistakenly believe that our metaphors are reality. Secondly, a poet sees reality and uses metaphor to talk about it because reality is so often ineffable, that is, indescribable in simple prose. As Elliot Eisner said, "Poetry offers a means to say what might not otherwise be said."

In his essay, Of Beauty, Francis Bacon said, "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion." A poet can see the ordinary in ways that make it seem both strange and beautiful.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

It's a cliché. It's obvious. Of course, obvious is the word we use when we don't intend to give an idea any further consideration. To those who have only frog's eyes, this old saying is stationary, undeserving of examination. But the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is a fundamental truth about the psychology of poetry. So let's actually consider it now.

Look up the word behold in the Oxford English Dictionary. Some of the definitions include: to see intently and fully, to pay close attention to, to contemplate. The word behold is also significantly related to holding onto and belonging to.

So beauty is only in the eye of an actual beholder. Only a precious few of us are beholders. Most people merely glance and only rarely behold the obvious or the ineffable. Fewer still write down what they actually behold. Those who do we call poets. A poet mostly talks to himself about what he beholds, and lets us overhear him. A poet lets us hear through his eyes. That includes, as Shelley says, "the before unapprehended relations of things."


References and some notes that I couldn't fit into the speech:

  1. Price, Roger. [There are several websites. Search the Internet for Droodles and enjoy.]
  2. Ackerman, Diane, Animal Sense, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000. [Re: frog's eyes.]
  3. Wells, Gary L., Elizabeth A. Olson, and Steve D. Chapman, "The Confidence of Eyewitnesses in Their Identifications from Lineups," Current Directions in Psychological Science, Oct. 2002 (Vol. 11, Nr. 5). Reviews research on the confidence that eyewitnesses express in their lineup identification of criminal suspects. "Many convictions of innocent people can be attributed in large part to confident but mistaken eyewitnesses." "[C]onfidence is governed by some factors that are unrelated to accuracy."
  4. Levvett, Lora M. & Kovera, Margaret Bull, "Psychologists battle over the general acceptance of eyewitness research," Monitor on Psychology, December 2002, p. 23.
  5. Field, Joanna, On Not Being Able to Paint, NY, G. P. Putnam, 1957. With a Foreword by Anna Freud.
  6. Rogers, Robert, Metaphor: A Psychoanalytic View. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1978.
  7. Schlain, Leonard, The Alphabet vs. The Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image, New York: Penguin/Arkana, 1998. A fascinating book even in the parts you may not agree with. Cf. pages 387 ff., about perceptual differences related to French noun gender vs. English lack of noun gender. Much of this book is about the assertion that images are right brain (feminine) whereas linear print is left-brain.
  8. Mill, John Stuart, Logic: Book III, Chapter vii, Reasoning.
  9. James, William, The Principles of Psychology, New York: Henry Holt, 1890. His Chapter XIII, Discrimination and Comparison, is still well worth reading.
  10. Purves, Dale and Lotto, R. Beau, Why we see what we do: An empirical theory of vision. Sinauer Associates, [2002?]. The human visual system is not organized to generate a true representation, "but rather a statistical reflection of the visual history … of the individual. Thus, what humans actually see is a reflexive manifestation of [the] past rather than a logical analysis of the present."
  11. Cartier, Francis, et al, The Air Force Staff Officer, Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.: Air University Press, 1961.

  12. Darwin, Charles, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Chapter 1. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1898. [First published in 1872.]

Aware Peek
Apparition Peer
Attend Peruse
Behold Scan
Chimera See
Gaze Spy
Glance Stare
Glimpse View
Illusion Vision/Envision
Look Watch

[Plus, of course, several words such as Invisible, Blind, Overlook, etc.]