Seeing Through Words

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by Mark Burrows

Mark Burrows is currently a faculty member at the Protestant University of Applied Sciences, Bochum (Germany). His work focuses on the abiding “voice” of medieval mysticism.His poems and translations of poems have recently appeared in Poetry, The Cortland Review, Southern Quarterly, The Anglican Theological Review, The Tablet, 91st Meridian, and Almost Island, among others. His forthcoming volume of poems, The Chance of Home, will appear in 2017 with Paraclete Press.


Seen truly, [Bashō] taught, all things are poetic, and there’s nothing that does not become a flower or moon. ‘But unless things are seen with fresh eyes,’ he added, ‘nothing’s worth writing down.’1

The phrase “I see what you mean” is a commonplace in our language. Strangely, though, it has little to do with seeing, at least not directly. As far back as we can map our language in its written form, we have joined seeing and understanding, drawing on our visual sense to point to comprehension. When we say this, usually as a response to puzzlement or confusion, we are referring to the kind of knowing that has “come about,” as if one had to travel a bit to acquire it—and here, we find ourselves turning back to the realm of vision, which requires space but also time. For seeing, despite the practically instantaneous speed by which light reaches our eyes, has a spatial as well as a temporal dimension. Seeing takes time, physically speaking. But in its metaphoric use, as a form of understanding, it also takes time, coming about through a process of thought that leads us eventually, perhaps, to some level of comprehension. We can look at something utterly unfamiliar and fail to see it, just as we find ourselves confronted with an unfamiliar question or problem and find ourselves unable to make any sense of it. And, when we agree to consider a matter further, we might well say, “I’ll give it a second look.”

My interest in this essay is about something as utterly ordinary and fascinating as this: How we come to understand something through a “second look,” by means of pondering, and thus through an often repeated “looking” that sometimes leads us on a circuitous route in our attempts to understand—or “see.” Undergirding this inquiry lies a claim that is the heart of this exploration, one that on the surface might well seem absurd: that we consider poetry as a visual art, and indeed that a poem’s visuality is one of its most distinctive and important characteristics. By this, I do not mean to diminish other attributes of poetry, such as its musicality which has to do with a poem’s pulse and sound, its rhythm and rhyme. But I hope the question of the visuality of poetry might encourage us to think more deeply about how poems help us learn to see through words, often in ways that activate a kind of knowing which is “thickened” through the use of image and the deep knowing facilitated by metaphor. Such things are the tools of poets, and their way of seeing in and through their work invites us to “see with fresh eyes,” as Bashō put it, and this discovery grounds his striking claim that “all things are truly poetic”—if “seen truly.” True seeing lies at the heart of what we come to poetry hoping to find.

A poem by Emily Dickinson suggests something of the complexity I am speaking about, tracing how it is that poems behave—in us. It is an ingenious gem in its own way, and moves us deeply into this question on two grounds: first, it explores the question of understanding, suggesting how poems work when they do; and second, it employs metaphor in a way that “thickens” the very point the poem is after. That is, it enacts visually what it is after verbally. The poem, untitled as all her poems were, opens with this poignant claim: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant—.” I have often thought this admonition would be a sturdy diet for all who attempt to communicate—and surely for those charged with the vocation of preaching—since it points to something crucial, that “slant-wise” knowing which is often more effective than a more direct approach, particularly as is the case in poetry along the path of metaphor. Of course, Dickinson’s claim should not be confused with deception; her point is rather about the process by which we come to understanding, which depends on indirection.

Such a claim accords well with the Christian faith, rooted as it is in what Kierkegaard often spoke of as the “incognito”—or “divine incognito,” as he preferred—of the incarnation. That is, whatever else we understand under the revelation of the divine Word in the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth, it had (and has) to do with an indirect showing. The neglected parallel between how understanding comes about in terms of this doctrine (revelation) and in poems is instructive: neither suggests a direct kind of certainty, or an immediate path of comprehension. Or, to put it another way: as with all the important things of life, we need time and often shifts in perspective to come to “see” properly.

But to return to poems: Bashō’s point bears repeating, that “nothing’s worth writing down,” at least as a poem, unless it is something we have seen “with fresh eyes.” Or, put prosaically, what we think we understand is rarely interesting to a poet, though this might form the starting point of a poem. The journey a poem wants to make steers in another direction. This one carries forth the poet’s idea with a dense stream of metaphor in the lines that follow:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

Now we seem to be getting somewhere, though exactly where remains a lively question at this midpoint of the poem. What is the circuit the poet alludes to here? Apparently, a form of slantwise knowing, since the word suggests a movement, a wandering or meandering that takes us on a journey. This is Dickinson’s point, suggesting something important about how seeing, or the understanding that comes through poetic seeing, works. And why? Because we cannot bear the truth—or, as Dickinson would have it, “the Truth’s superb surprise”—easily. It is too much for us, too overwhelming to consider directly, all at once, a warning that takes us back to an ancient metaphor Aristotle used, and many later theologians after him—Thomas Aquinas perhaps most famously. Our “progress toward truth” labors under several difficulties, the most important of which the great Peripatetic teacher describes as follows:

. . . the cause of [this] difficulty is not in things but in us. For as the eyes of the bats are to the blaze of the sun, so is the intellect in our soul to the things which are by nature most evident of all. (Metaphysics I. 993b, 7-11)

Dickinson draws on another metaphor to make the same point: our “delight” is infirm, which is to say, the joy that comes with our way of knowing things is not strong enough to take in “the truth”—whatever this is—directly.

What does this have to do with art, and, more to the point, with the spiritual capacities of art to help us see? How does art bring us to understand what Aristotle presumed to be the ultimate truths, “which are by nature most evident of all” but which exceed our comprehension—not because they are somehow beyond us, but because we are not prepared to see them? Or, to put it bluntly: what’s poetry got to do with this kind of visuality?

Turning back to Dickinson’s poem, we notice that she is not only interested in the incapacities we bring—i.e., our “infirmities” of knowing—but also in how it is that truth surprises us. The metaphor she employs to make this point takes us down a remarkable path of metaphor:

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

Here, then, we have a complex epistemological exploration, adroitly interpreted by means of a common experience. Perhaps for this very reason it startles us as it does, given the particular way the poet unfolds it—not by abstract reasoning, but rather by means of a striking metaphor, which is to say “slantwise” or indirectly. It is evident that lightning can terrify, and not only children, and it might be that an explanation of the physics involved could spare us some weight of worry (though in the moment this seems unlikely). But only in the last two lines does Dickinson reveal what she is after, twisting the metaphor in a remarkable way: it is as if she supposes one might slow lightning down to a more easily comprehensible speed, following its “circuit” in slow-motion, as it were. But there is more to it than this. Her point suggests that truth comes to us along the path of startlement, or, as she puts it here, by means of its capacity to dazzle us—albeit “gradually,” lest we, like Aristotle’s bats, find ourselves immediately blinded by coming from darkness into the light.

The poem offers a small masterpiece of insight into the complicated field of epistemology, suggesting something important to those of us who concern ourselves with matters of ultimacy, whether or not we ascribe this to the name “God.” This question has nothing to do with Pilate’s scoffing complaint, “What is truth?” but rather turns on the more fundamental point of how we come to “see” what is true through the indirection of metaphor. What Dickinson is after reminds us that our human capacities to approach the “big” questions depend on metaphoric knowing, inviting us down the path of indirection. In this, they have more to do with insinuation or enticement than with declaration or statement. Teachers and preachers, take note!

What this path draws on is the use of the imagination, by which I mean the capacity to create an inner world of seeing that both draws on and plays with the outer, and this brings us back to important parallels that relate painting and poetry. In a provocative essay on this subject, the poet Wallace Stevens put it this way: “The typical function of the imagination . . . always makes use of the familiar to produce the unfamiliar.” His point is that art, whether the verbal forms of the poet or the images created by the painter, has to do with what he calls “an effort of the mind.” He goes on to suggest that the poet “is in rapport with the painter, who does his job, with respect to the problems of form and color, which confront him incessantly, not by inspiration, but by imagination or by the miraculous kind of reason that the imagination sometimes promotes.”2 Stevens’s claim here leads toward his crucial conclusion: the kind of “reasoning,” if we can call it that, which both poet and painter work with has to do with imagination, with calling forth images that work on us in the depths of mind. This is a point that brain scientists and neurologists have confirmed in recent decades, reminding us that the function of “long-term” memory occurs in the hippocampus, or the “deep” brain. So, too, does our sense of orientation which functions as a kind of inner “compass” of our mind, steering us, as it were, as we learn to navigate our world.

What does all this suggest in terms of the visuality of poetry? Much in every way, though let us press the neuroscience further in order to make sense of this. My argument to this point, suggesting that there is a difference between simply looking at something and coming to see it, has to do with how images formed from the immediate visual stimuli which the optic nerve carries to the cerebral cortex are first “translated” into the deep(er) knowing of the limbic system. But this is complicated when we come upon something unfamiliar, an image for which we have no cognate in our memory, and which we either fail to see or understand, as one option, or find jarring to the point that we have to learn to think differently. This disorientation is what a strong metaphor brings about, rooted in a confusion on the level of our expectations; such slantwise seeing disorients us, first of all, in order to reorient us once we come to “see” what the unfamiliar offers. Stevens is after precisely this point with his notion of the “miraculous kind of reasoning,” or imagination, and this undergirds my inquiry into how visuality leads to understanding. As he goes on to say in this regard, “the world about us would be desolate except for the world within us,” and he describes the creative process as an “interchange between these two worlds” which is something like “migratory passings to and fro, quickenings, Promethean liberations and discoveries.”3
This is a marvelous passage, found in an essay that became perhaps the central chapter in The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination (1942), his brilliant if peculiar exploration of the arts and creativity. Here, Stevens speaks broodingly of how artists—poets and painters alike—find themselves living and working “in the midst of a generation that is experiencing an essential poverty in the midst of fortune.” He felt that what was needed was an imaginative or poetic engagement with what he simply called “reality,” the real world in which we find ourselves. What he challenged us to embrace is what he describes as “the extension of the mind beyond the range of the mind, the projection of reality beyond reality, the determination to cover the ground whatever it may be, the determination not to be confined, the recapture of excitement and intensity of interest, the enlargement of the spirit at every time, in every way.”4 This is Stevens’s credo as an artist, voiced as a call to participate in what he called “the conversion of our Lumpenwelt,”5 by which he meant to suggest how we enlarge reality through the work of art, whether by means of painted images or the poetic word. His point recalls what Dickinson spoke of with the marvelous word dazzling.

What does this have to do with visuality, above all in the verbal art of poetry? Much, I would suggest, because “poems don’t tell, they show,” as the familiar adage reminds us. They give us something to look at, to ponder, often through the baffled lens of metaphor—which gives us one thing, quite literally, to look at, but in a manner that reminds us that seeing is only a possible consequence of this, and that its success depends on “circuit” (Dickinson). The “indirection” of metaphor is essential in taking us on the path by which images arrive at an implied truth, a movement that neuroscience traces in the movement of thought from the cerebrum to the hippocampus, from what Heidegger in his different vocabulary thought of as the difference between “calculative” and “meditative” reasoning. What this means for visual art—and I mean to refer to painting or sculpture here, things that we look at—is important enough. But I would suggest that poetry offers a poignant example of this insight, and here, to suggest why this is so, let us shift our focus to probe the question of visuality along a different line of inquiry.

The Swiss painter, Paul Klee, once made a startling—and startlingly simple—claim when he suggested that “art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible.”6 His younger contemporary Max Beckmann took this further, describing his intention as a painter as trying to “get hold of the magic of reality and to transfer this reality into painting—to make the invisible visible through reality.”7 Beckmann extends Klee’s claim when he suggests that “art is creative for the sake of realization, not for amusement; for transfiguration, not for the sake of play.”8 Art is not about changing us in some small way. It seeks no less than this: to transfigure the world we look at in the first instance, and only then to bring about a change within us in the manner of our seeing. This is particularly true of modernist art, of expressionism and what we have come to call abstract art, as my friend the Australian painter and theologian Doug Purnell often reminds me. Or, as Kirk Varnedoe put it in his justly celebrated lectures on this subject, “abstract art, while seeming insistently to reject and destroy representation, in fact steadily expands its possibilities. . . . Abstraction is a remarkable system of productive reductions and destructions that expands our potential for expression and communication.”9 And it does this by adding “new words and phrases to the language,” by leading us “slantwise,” as it were, to new comprehensions along the path of disorientation.

How abstract paintings accomplish this, then, works on the optic level in ways that operate semantically as well. The experience of entering a room of abstract paintings in a museum of contemporary art brings this point home, at least in terms of the initial confusion that greets the eye. How this leads to “new comprehensions” is what makes some expressions of such art enduring and thus memorable. But what of poems, to return to where this inquiry began? I hope that this circuitous route might now open a new way of seeing what Dickinson was after, and what it is about poetry’s visuality that is so striking—and, in tandem with abstract painting, why poetry is significant as a visual art. Let us turn, then, to ask how it is that poems bring about “realization” or “reorientation” in us, which is to say how they ignite the imagination by means of metaphor, which is to say not through line and shape, color and form, or not through these alone, but rather by means of the slantwise knowing of metaphor.

To suggest how this functions, I turn to a short poem of my own, one that might suggest in nuce how poems “behave” in our minds. I trust that the poem will need no explication; in any case, I would not as a poet wish to offer one. What I will do is tease out the central metaphor involved as a means of furthering this discussion.

“So, Too, the Heart”

The old temple bell
still sings in the silences,
waiting for the hammer
to bring it again to song.10

What gives this poem its energy, if I might say this, is the tension present in the central metaphor, which on the surface is simple enough: the image of a bell, silent through age and disuse, while waiting for the mechanism of the hammer to strike. Such a metaphor reflects what we have long called “poetic license,” of course, as neither bells nor hearts “sing”—in the silences or in any other outward form. And this confusion is crucial to how the poem communicates, using disorienting language to point to what lies beyond but also strangely within the literal sense of such an image. Such a metaphor, like a strong example of abstract painting, seeks first to startle us, to run against our expectations, in order to expand “our potential for expression and communication” (Varnedoe)—that is, the slantwise seeing of the imagination which might but must not lead to new forms of knowing. Whether it does depends on the seer, not the seen, on the manner of looking and not the looked-at object. For as Amos Wilder already put it a generation (and more) ago, “it is at the level of the imagination that the fateful issues of our new world-experience must first be mastered.”11

It is an imaginative claim to speak of singing “in the silences,” and the deep work of metaphor calls us in its own way to come to see how a long silent bell might tell us something about the human heart, about our longings as human beings—for intimacy, for union, for love. And here it is the poem’s title which creates the needed leverage to make such a profound point with a paucity of words, the true point of metaphor, after all. One might say that this tension is what makes it not simply a lyric description of a scene, but a poem, properly speaking: that is, the mention of the heart—“so, too, the heart”—implies a parallel, and in this case suggests what it means to say that the heart longs to be brought to song again. It is a poem about yearning, about desire, the deep sort that rings out from the silent depths, that “sings” in the silences, that longs because of absence—all this on the strength of a simple image of a neglected old temple bell which, presumably, had often rung in some distant time to call monks to prayer or devotees to meditation.

Here, then, the world within us, to return to Wallace Stevens, engages the “looked-at” world of the outside, as it were, saving it from the “mere” literal sense, which Stevens describes as a “desolation.” This is the work of imagination, which “makes visible” (Klee) something we could not previously see, whether on the canvas or in the poem. In its poetical form, we learn to “see through words,” with the intended double entendre of this phrase in play. Or, as Jane Hirshfield recently put it, the artistic process happens by means of what she describes as “the continuing examination of both inner and outer worlds undertaken by seeing through words.”12

This is what I mean when I claim poetry as a visual art, not primarily because it brings us images—which it obviously does—but on account of how poetry animates the way we learn to “see” our world and come to see “in” it by means of metaphor. Poems thicken our visual experience of what we sometimes blandly call “reality.” They enlarge and deepen our sense of this life through the instrumentality of metaphor which helps us “get hold of the magic of reality,” as Beckmann put it, and transfer it to an inner comprehension—in this case, in the quite ordinary language we might use, not simply to describe what we are looking at but to convey what we are seeing. The visuality attainable through poems suggests a “circuit” (Dickinson) by which we indwell our lives more richly than we might otherwise have done. In Stevens’s sense it is, with painting, “one of the enlargements of life.”13

Precisely for this reason, Robert Frost insisted that “unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere. Because you are not at ease with figurative values.”14 Such tutelage, such guidance, is what poetry offers us, precisely because it allows us “to say one thing in terms of another,” which as the poet went on to suggest is “to say matter in terms of spirit, or spirit in terms of matter, to make the final unity.”15 Metaphor is precisely this meeting point where spirit and matter meet and mingle, reminding us that poetry is at its best because of its imaginative power, which is to say because of how it brings us to see differently. It is this particular power of its visuality that suggests how it is that poems save us from the “merely” literal, from what Stevens called the Lumpenwelt, which of itself is neutral, perhaps even sterile, lacking passion and appetite. And, as I earlier suggested, metaphor offers us a startling and important way to think about how the revelations of language come to us and teach us to see—again, or differently. It is also, as I suggested earlier, how they “happen” in us, how incarnation comes upon us in the ways we learn to see the divine in the ordinary, an insight that led Hopkins to shape an utterly ingenious and unforgettable metaphor: “Christ plays in ten thousand places.”16

All this points to how creativity works through the imagination, which is not a mere externalizing of an inner process, or not this alone, but a dynamic reorientation of visuality itself. The painter and the poet alike do not reproduce the visual; rather, they make visible (Klee), helping us learn to see, and not simply to look. It takes us to the place not simply of understanding but of what Dickinson suggested was a kind of “dazzling.” This is what art is essentially about, a call that poetry answers through the playful and elastic startlements of metaphor, which bring together disparate things—the “outer” with the “inner,” the unfamiliar with the intimate, the magical with the common. It has to do with the conversion of the former in terms of the latter, and vice versa.

What is poetry? Call it the training of the eye or the deep knowing that comes about by means of metaphor. Call it the power of visuality, occurring in the deep brain, by which we find new orientation and learn to live more creatively in our Lumpenwelt. Call it the slantwise knowing that allows us to see “with fresh eyes” (Bashō), to glimpse in the utterly ordinary something at least of “the final unity.” Call it transfiguration, with Max Beckmann. Or call it, precisely because of its visuality, by its common name: one of the visual arts.


  1. Jane Hirshfield, “Seeing Through Words: An Introduction to Bashō, Haiku, and the Suppleness of Image,” in Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), 51-52.
  2. Wallace Stevens, “Relations between Poetry and Painting,” from The Necessary Angel, in Wallace Stevens: Collected Poetry and Prose (New York: The Library of America, 1997), 744.
  3. Ibid., 747.
  4. Ibid., 748.
  5. Ibid., 750.
  6. See his “Creative Credo” [1920], in The Inward Vision (1959); in Theories of Modern Art: A Source Book by Artists and Critics, ed. by Herschel Browning Chipp (Berkeley, CA and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968), 183.
  7. See his essay “On My Painting,” in Theories of Modern Art, 187-88.
  8. Ibid., 189.
  9. Kurt Varnedoe, Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art since Pollock (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006), xv.
  10. Mark S. Burrows, The Chance of Home: Poems (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Poetry, forthcoming in 2017).
  11. Amos Wilder, from the Foreword to Grace Confounding: Poems (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1972); cited in Amos Wilder, Theopoetic: Theology and the Religious Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 1.
  12. Hirshfield, Ten Windows, 73.
  13. Stevens, The Necessary Angel, 640.
  14. Robert Frost, “Education by Poetry: A Meditative Monologue” (1930), in Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays (New York: The Library of America, 1995), 721.
  15. Ibid., 721, 723.
  16. See Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.”