Beyond Description: Poetry That Stares–An Essay by Kurt Brown

It’s commonplace now to assert that contemporary experience has been broken up into fifteen second ads, rapid cinematic cross-cuts, bewildering language collages, and ephemeral sound bytes. Consciousness, we agree, has been fractured—perhaps beyond repair. It’s as though the whole culture were suffering from attention deficit disorder, unable to sustain collective thought. This frazzling of attention might be welcomed by experimental artists and merchandizing outfits of all kinds. Such shattering of awareness is relatively new, and as recently as a half century ago—certainly stretching back through preceding millennia—the human mind was capable of extended periods of concentration, of focusing itself on objects and events that moved relatively slowly, and which therefore yielded up more and more about themselves the longer the observer stayed put. A Zen-like meditative state might not have been widespread in the Middle Ages, but attention spans during that historical epoch were probably more durable than ours, and distraction—at least rapid immediate distraction—less a problem.

As one of the oldest human activities, poetry is still capable of evoking the meditative state, of recording an almost trance-like attachment to people, places, objects and events and allowing even ordinary experience to reveal depth and dimension, significance and substance, lastingness and solidity. Of yielding up, that is, the secret qualities of things—the deeper meaning of phenomena, the unseen reality that might begin to emanate from each object if only we could stay fixed and focused on it long and faithfully enough, for such subtle details, such essences, to be revealed. The modern mind, skating swiftly over the surface of things, making rapid surveys of all it sees, bouncing from perception to perception, cannot know—cannot get at—the secret life of things, to borrow a concept from Rilke. We might notice the gleaming torso of Apollo, while sprinting through the museum, but we can no longer experience the fact that it is also noticing us. That kind of dawning, radical awareness may now have been rendered passé.

All poems—at least traditionally—represent acts of attention more or less, though post-modernism delights in reversing conventional approaches to writing by favoring interruption, disjunction, floating pronouns, shifting grammar, fractured sentences, and so on, over what Tony Hoagland has called “the poetries of continuity.” The post-modern poem, then, seeks to imitate the fractured nature of contemporary experience, to mirror it in formal strategies and scattered syntax, rather than trying to reconstruct wholeness—to re-member the scattered corpse of the Muse—the dead Horus of all poetries leading up to Modernism which was the first to introduce fragment and collage into the mainstream of western literature. What I am calling “staring poems” then, is naturally inimical to the whole project of post-modernism. This is not necessarily a judgment, but an essential feature of post-modernism that excludes it from the possibility of producing poems of extended focus and attention and therefore separates it from the centuries of poetry that preceded it. Whatever virtues it may have gained by attempting to replicate contemporary experience, it can no longer partake in the qualities and discoveries of prolonged meditation.

A distinction has to be made, too, between poems of observation and poems that stare—though of course they are related, the latter being essentially a noticeable magnification of the former, a particular species of descriptive poetry that, by its sheer persistence, represents a higher degree of attention. The poem of observation has been with us for a long time, perhaps from the very first. All traditional poems describe things, and great poems describe them greatly. One of the glories of Homer, we are told, is the precision of his imagery—the physical, concrete, nature of what he presents to our senses—which critics have praised with such terms as “visceral” and “alive.” The wine-dark sea and the rosy fingers of dawn have come down to us almost undiminished in their imaginative rightness and surprising beauty. When Dante escorts us through hell, we shrink from the rippling tapestry of flames and the acrid smell of sulfur. Milton, too, allows us to see the huge body of Satan sprawled out in a lake of fire with the other fallen angels scattered around him “thick as leaves that strow the brooks in Valambrosa.” Modernism itself is founded on the idea of observation and representational aesthetics. Imagism, the movement that began it all, was fundamentally an effort to restore clarity and precision to poetry after the emotional fuzziness and haze of Victorian emoting.

More recently, Francis Ponge’s poems have received their fair share of admiration for the painstaking effort they make to focus attention on a single object—an orange, an oyster, a pebble, even roadside dung—though in Ponge’s treatment of things the mind travels side by side with the object, informing it, imbuing it with meaning, probing it and commenting on it at every step. The objects in Ponge’s poems are infused throughout with a fine, delicate subjectivity that heightens and illuminates them even further. One feels Ponge’s mind suffusing each article with an interior light, which is the dim light of partial understanding, an inkling as we say, even as the power of his attention surrounds each object with the fierce halo of his gaze. We are as aware of Ponge, the observer, as we are of whatever it is he is observing. That is to say, the presence of the observer is felt in every word of the poem; we are never allowed to forget that he is there.

But this is true of most poems of observation, whether immediately or at some point later in the poem. Take, for example, the following poem ‘Snake’ by Francine Sterle, a very fine poem of close description that appeared in her book Every Bird is One Bird from Tupelo Press in 2001. Here’s the poem in its entirety, because it will be necessary to talk about it at some length in order to note the qualities of observation that may be found in most poems of this kind:

Saw it hatch from an egg
like a bird, saw it surge
months later from a mud hole,
glide across a log, wave upon wave,
into a dark crevice in the rocks,
saw its feathery tongue flicker
as its eyes went cold,
and it swelled thick-bodied
until it burst from its skin
in one luminous stroke, saw
the undulating string of chevrons
shiver down its back,
saw it slip into the world
in roots and umbilical cords,
wheels and smoke and curling hair,
saw it in the whip-tailed wind
hissing behind me, in the uterine earth,
the Great Serpent writhing under my feet
when I walked. Saw it coil
into a wreath, and still it stirred
without arms or legs or wings, slithered forward,
unlocked its jaws over a mouse, unlocked
something in me: Lord of this world,
Lord who delights in blood,
and my shovel crushed its head,
and this is how I yielded.

The first thing to notice about the poem is how Sterles seeks to detach herself from what she is observing, to direct the reader’s attention, not to herself, but to the snake she wants us to observe with her, something she partially achieves by dropping the subject of these sentences—the “I”—which would normally stand in front of those anaphorically migrating verbs: “saw.” “Don’t pay attention to me,” she seems to be implying, “look only at what I have to show you.” The observing consciousness doesn’t enter the poem until after line twelve, which ends a long list of details about the snake’s physical attributes and behavior. After that point, however, the observer’s presence is detectable to some degree in the metaphorical forays she makes into snakiness itself, the curling and writhing of other things—smoke, roots, hair—that resemble in some way the creature she has just described. But metaphor, we know, takes place only in the mind of the speaker and, for the first time, not out there in the world. Line by line, she continues to come forward until, finally, she steps completely into the poem by revealing herself—for the fist time—with the pronoun “I.” And that is where the poem, for the first time as well, comes to rest, before pushing on towards its inevitable disclosure, the revelation towards which it has been tending. Observation has done its work, and may be left behind. Statement—the framing of an idea—is now in order, and takes its place: “unlocked something in me…and this is how I yielded.”

Much more might be said about this poem, about its prosodic features—those anapests that advance trippingly after the clogged spondees of lines two and three: “saw it surge / months later from a mud hole, / glide across a log, wave upon wave, / into a dark crevice in the rocks”— its numerous enjambments and positional vagaries of the verb “saw,” which enact or at least underscore the sinuous movement of the snake, and the single long line that describes how the snake “slithered forward,” even as the line slithers forward to tell us so. It is an adept performance, in almost every way.

And of course it reminds us of other poems about snakes: Dickinson’s great poem that ends in “zero at the bone”; Lawrence’s wonderful meditation about “one of the Lord’s of Life.” It hardly needs mentioning that the whole myth of Eden lurks behind the words and images of “Snake,” contextualizing it even further to give it resonances and meanings not necessarily present in the poet’s actual experience of her particular snake. When she yields, here, it is to that urge towards violence that we associate with snakes, especially snakes that represent the Devil. This is a strong poem, one that uses observation skillfully and for a very definite purpose. What I’m looking for, though, is something more radical than this. Poems or passages of poems in which the observer all but disappears, all but vanishes into the background of the text while we, its readers, are left alone completely absorbed in what we are seeing, hearing, and experiencing, albeit imaginary, as art. In poems that stare so hard we become, in Emerson’s memorable phrase, “translucent eyeballs,” no longer aware of ourselves, much less the observer who is describing what we see.

Let’s begin with Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “At the Fishhouses,” which describes one of the coastal fishing villages of her youthful Nova Scotia. It is not necessary to cite every line of “At the Fishhouses”, as Bishop does appear—memorably—at various places in the poem. But not until thirty one lines have been spent painstakingly and beautifully observing the details of the fishhouses and the interesting terrain surrounding them. The staring here is selective, but intense, unwavering. From an old man working on his nets in the evening, we move to the “steeply peaked roofs” of the fishhouses, to “the heavy surface of the sea, / swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,” to “the benches, / the lobster pots, and masts, scattered / among the wild jagged rocks,” to “The big fish tubs…completely lined / with layers of beautiful herring scales,” and so on, so that when Bishop finally enters the poem at line thirty two by handing the old man a Lucky Strike, we are startled, shocked, as if she had just emerged from the twilight at our elbow to break the spell we’ve been under, a spell cast by the powerful manifestation of the landscape she has just been observing for us. The scene has been so potently depicted, and we have been so deeply drawn into it, that we had forgotten she was even there. Even brief moments of subjectivity—such as that suggested by the word “considering” above (who has this idea?), and the lines “The air smells strong of codfish / it makes one’s nose run and one’s eyes water”—fail to destroy the sense of detachment, the impersonal feeling built up over so many lines of painterly description, that we pass over them almost without notice, without considering how they might imply an observer, a speaker standing nearby in the gloaming with us.

Staring poems, almost entirely, resist the temptation to turn the object(s) of their observation into metaphor. At least, not at first, and not for a long time. Often until the very last lines of the poem. Though she is present, more or less, at various places from line thirty three on, Bishop continues to observe the landscape and the creatures in it, until she finally gets around to the revelation she’s been seeking—the master metaphor that will deepen and enlarge the significance of all that has come before. The sea, finally, is figured as something other than itself, something abstract and uncontained:

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

This is effective as far as it goes, but feels rather operatic and self-conscious—worked over—in comparison to the acute observations with which the poem began (“from the rocky breasts / forever” seems particularly forced). What we remember about the poem, I believe, is not this final rhetorical summation, but “the small old buildings with an emerald moss / growing on their shoreward walls” and the old man with “sequins on his vest and on his thumb” who “has scraped the scales, the principal beauty, / from unnumbered fish with that black old knife, / the blade of which is almost worn away.”

Perhaps the weakest moment in Bishop’s famous staring poem, “The Fish,” is its ending as well, which many critics denounce, feeling that it adds a note of sentimentality, a predictable gesture of sympathy at the last moment which feels tacked on, moralizing at the culmination of a much more interesting, and powerfully obsessive description of the fish. Though Bishop is present in “The Fish” in first-person pronouns scattered throughout the poem, here again the force of observation is so intense it tends to overwhelm the sense of an observer by aggressively directing our attention to the object itself. Who really cares about those intersecting, oily rainbows, and the notion of fishly victory, when we are presented with such astonishing detail, such minutely observed specifics, as in the magnificent passage describing the fish’s skin: “Here and there / his brown skin hung in strips / like ancient wallpaper, / and its pattern of darker brown / was like wallpaper: / shapes like full-blown roses / stained and lost through age.” And she continues:

He was speckled with barnacles,
fine rosettes of lime,
and infested
with tiny white sea-lice,
and underneath two or three
rags of green weed hung down.

As if her obsession with describing the fish cannot stop at a presentment of its exterior details alone, Bishop now enters the fish’s body and describes what she can only imagine—but most surely has seen many times, while cleaning fish—that is to say, her depiction of these things is not fanciful, but literal. She speaks of:

…the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers,
the big bones and the little bones
the dramatic reds and blacks
of his shiny entrails,
and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.

The description, here, is riveting. Bishop’s gaze is so clear, so particular, that we again enter a kind of observational trance, an absorption in the object of contemplation so complete we forget about her and ourselves and perhaps even the fact that we are reading a poem, a representation of the thing, and not seeing the thing itself. After this interior survey of the fish’s principal organs, Bishop imaginatively exits the fish to take note of it’s eyes:

the irises backed and packed
with tarnished tinfoil
seen through the lenses
of old scratched isinglass.

The notations here are so fresh and surprising, we feel that we could linger with her over every feature of the fish—lovingly, completely—until the creature has been thoroughly limned, thoroughly illuminated in words and images that possess the inevitableness Harold Bloom touts in his little book The Art of Reading Poetry as one of the most important values a poem might exhibit: the conviction that what is stated and presented could have been stated and presented in no other way. Nothing about the poem feels arbitrary. Everything about it feels determined, fated, having that exactly-this-and-nothing-else quality that satisfies our deepest sense of fitness and artistic achievement.

In what I feel is one of Bishop’s most successful poems, “The Moose,” she retreats even farther into the background to allow the landscape, other lives, and the moose itself to take center stage. In this poem, she is little more than a camera eye—perhaps a video camera, in this day and age—dutifully recording what happens during a bus trip through the Nova Scotia countryside at night. When she does enter the poem, it is not as a singular “I,” but submerged in a group, an indistinguishable member of the pronouns “us” and “we.” All her attention is directed outward, a mere amanuensis of what transpires, which is filled with both ordinariness and mystery, capped off with the appearance of the moose. Bishop is both eye and ear—both voyeur and eavesdropper submerged in the all-encompassing darkness—and even at the ultimate moment, when the moose steps out of the woods, sniffs the bus, and is left behind, she avoids drawing a moral, or turning the beast into a metaphor for primal nature, the unconscious, a pagan god or totem of any kind, or imagination’s awkward ambassador. All of these might exist as layers beneath the literal events of the poem, but Bishop remains an objective reporter throughout. She has been staring into the night for twenty-eight stanzas and is willing to let whatever emerges from it speak for itself. It is one of the great poems of prolonged attention we have, at least in contemporary literature, though it was written somewhat before the fracturing of our post-modern sensibilities had taken place.

Perhaps one of our most notable “staring” poets is C. K. Williams who, through a number of remarkable volumes since Tar, from Random House in 1980, has given us numerous examples of poems that are disciplined, alert, marvelously detailed, and unique for the way in which they can parse—not only physical actions and things—but abstract concepts, thoughts, feelings, as though they were as solid and visible as any object. Like Ponge, whom he has translated, Williams is capable of an obsessive, breathtakingly determined gaze. But unlike Ponge, Williams is almost exclusively interested in people—what they say and do, how they interact with each other, what they think, and feel. A poem like “Waking Jed,” will serve to illustrate the sheer hypnotic nature of his attention, a patience and dedication to getting it right that is almost preternatural in its power:

Deep asleep, perfect immobility, no apparent evidence of consciousness or of dream.
Elbow cocked, fist on pillow lightly curled to the tension of the partially relaxing sinew.
Head angled off, just so: the jaw’s projection exaggerated slightly, almost to prognathous: why?
The features express nothing whatsoever and seem to call up no response in me.
Though I say nothing, don’t move, gradually, far down within, he, or rather not he yet,
something, a presence, an element of being, becomes aware of me: there begins a subtle,
very gentle alteration in the structure of his face, or maybe less that that, more elusive,
as though the soft distortions of sleep-warmth radiating from his face and flesh,
those essentially unreal mirages in the air between us, were modifying, dissipating.
The face now is more his, Jed’s—its participation in the almost Romanesque generality
I wouldn’t a moment ago have been quite able to specify, not having its contrary, diminishes.
Particularly on the cheekbones and chin, the skin is thinning, growing denser, harder,
the molecules on the points of bone coming to attention, the eyelids finer, brighter, foil-like:
capillaries, veins; though nothing moves, there are goings to and fro behind now.
One hand opens, closes down more tightly, the arm extends suddenly full length,
jerks once at the end, again, holds: there’s a more pronounced elongation of the skull—
the infant pudginess, whatever atavism it represented, or reversion, has been called back.
Now I sense, although I can’t say how, his awareness of me: I can feel him begin to think,
I even know that he’s thinking—or thinking in a dream perhaps—of me here watching him.
Now I’m aware—again, with no notion how, nothing indicates it—that if there was a dream,
it’s gone, and, yes, his eyes abruptly open although his gaze, straight before him,
seems not to register just yet, the mental operations still independent of his vision.
I say his name, the way we do it, softly, calling one another from a cove or cave,
as though something else were there with us, not to be disturbed, to be crept along beside.
The lids come down again, ye yawns, widely, very consciously manifesting intentionality.
Great, if rudimentary, pleasure now: a sort of primitive, peculiarly mammalian luxury—
to know, to know wonderfully that lying here, warm, protected, eyes closed, one can,
for a moment anyway, a precious instant, put off the lower specie onsets, duties, debts.
Sleeker, somehow, slyer, more aggressive now, he is suddenly more awake, all awake,
already plotting, scheming, fending off: nothing said but there is mild rebellion, conflict:
I insist, he resists, and then, with abrupt, wriggling grace, he otters down from sight,
just his brow and crown, his shining rumpled hair, left ineptly showing from the sheet.
Which I pull back to find him in what he must believe a parody of sleep, himself asleep:
fetal, rigid, his arms clamped to his sides, eyes screwed shut, mouth clenched, grinning.

Anyone familiar with technical manuals might recognize the affinity this has to process analysis, whereby engineers or chemical workers might learn, step by step, how a particular sequence of mechanical or chemical events might unfold. With a crucial difference: no engineer would be expected to have to read, much less understand, the complex abstractions presented here. Even most poets might be satisfied to note that “a very gentle alternation in the structure of [jed’s] face” takes place without fine tuning this observation by pushing it farther, to include something “more elusive”: “the soft distortions of sleep-warmth radiating from his face / and flesh, / those essentially unreal mirages in the air between us, were modify- / ing, dissipating.” To be aware of such subtleties, much less finding the language to articulate them, is one of Williams’s gifts as a poet, and what sets his observations apart from many other poets engaged in describing the spectral or ephemeral qualities of things. Compare this, for instance, to Bishop’s beautiful evocation of the sea at dusk, in “At the Fishhouses”:

All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea,
swelling slowly as if considering spilling over,
is opaque…

and later, again:

I have seen it over and over, the same sea, the same,
slightly, indifferently swinging above the stones,
icily free above the stones,
above the stones and then the world.

The point isn’t that Williams is a better poet, or a more careful observer. It is just that he is after more liminal, elusive phenomena, states of awareness almost impossible to portray because of their frail, shimmering brevity, their almost-not-hereness, that only the most refined sensibility can detect. Williams is one of the poets who have made it possible again to partake of the widest array of terms the English language has to offer. His poetry is a far cry from the primitive “stone” “wind” “ice” and “star” vocabulary, mostly symbolic, favored in the 1960s when he began to write poetry for the first time.

In fact, it might be argued that Williams clutters his lines with too many heavy, abstract Latinate words, to many hesitations, second-guessings, and qualifications, and that these actually distract from the object of his attention rather than bringing it into sharper focus. But if we look closely at Williams’s sentence structure, the wide array of adjectives and adverbs employed, and his use of what I call “triadic focusing (which I will define shortly),” we might begin to understand how the apparent complexity of his style actually helps, not hinders, the exactness of his descriptions. In “Waking Jed” the observer is patient, fastidious in the details he selects for us to regard, and rigorously fixed on an object that is essentially still, or changing very slightly over a short period of time. The drama here is provided almost completely by the force of the observer’s gaze. The language is lavish, intricate, sometimes concrete, sometimes attempting to make the abstract concrete and, therefore, graspable. The long lines allow, even encourage the observer to take his time, to inch over his material with no pressure to hurry because he has plenty of room to do so. Roominess is a quality, a condition of long lines and almost guarantees a slower pace than shorter lines would provide.

There is a constant imperative to keep qualifying and revising himself, in the interests of getting it right, of nailing it down, of finally capturing those aspects of what he sees in words and phrases that will serve when no language, really, will serve in the face of such transitory, gossamer-like phenomena. So, his doubts and self-interuptions are scattered throughout—“or maybe…” ““or…perhaps “although…” “or rather…” and are reflected in provisional words like “seem” “as though…” somehow…”, as well as in the periodic sentences that appear here and there in his examination of Jed, marked by suspended clauses that clarify, en passant, the main body of his sentence. We are often told that a poet’s style mirrors, in some way, his or her thought processes. This is surely the case here, with the caveat that Williams’s poems, like any poet’s, only present the illusion of the thought processes that made them—not the actual process itself, which was messy, imprecise, halting, and unavoidably incomplete. Williams’s chief technique, however, the mechanism with which he most strenuously tries to “get it right,” is provided by what I have called “triadic focusing.” When Williams employs this technique, he is not stumbling. He is allowing the reader to move with him from the most generalized expression of a thought to a clearer, more pointed formulization of that thought which is probably the closest he will ever get to actually articulating what he observes.

So, at the very beginning of the poem, Williams moves from “Deep asleep” (most general), to “perfect immobility” (more specific), to “no apparent evidence of consciousness or of dream” (most specific) in the course of a single line, ratcheting his observation down with each phrase—adjusting the lens, as it were—until he is satisfied that he has found the best way to embody his thought, to clarify it as far as it is possible to do so with the clunky, imprecise apparatus of language. Not much later, concerned with what he senses is taking place “far down within” the remote being of the sleeper, he does it again—how to describe this? He starts by saying “something,” (most general), then decides he will call it “a presence,” (more specific), and finally settles on “an element of being” as the most precise way he can articulate the insubstantialness, the vapory half-life of whatever it is that begins to stir deep in Jed’s slumbering brain. In fact, the word “something” occurs twice in the poem and the word “nothing” five times. It is how Williams gets from “something” or almost “nothing” to “what will suffice,” as Wallace Stevens put it—some final compromise in words— that provides the poem with its raison d’etre, its challenge, which Williams keeps asking of himself, and meeting, and going on, and which is a measure of the poem’s ultimate value and success. To find language for what occurs on the fringes of consciousness, at the border between what is speakable and what is not, is one of the poet’s particular tasks, a constant wrestling with language that—even at its best—favors the generic over the specific, the approximate over the exact. That is why language has so many modifiers. Adjectives and adverbs are specifiers, various choke-holds for grappling with the generality of nouns and verbs in an attempt to pin them to the mat.

So the list of modifiers in Williams’s poem is impressive, and flies in the face of Pound’s generally accepted advice to avoid adjectives as much as possible in poetry. Williams employs the following in his struggle with the ineffable: deep, perfect, apparent, partially relaxing, exaggerated, subtle, gentle, elusive, soft, essentially unreal, almost Romanesque, denser, harder, finer, brighter, foil-like, infant, mental, great, rudimentary, primitive, peculiar, mammalian, precious, lower, sleeker, slyer, mild, abrupt, wriggling, shining, rumpled, fetal, rigid, shut, clenched, and grinning. As we can see from this list, the comparative (denser, harder, finer, brighter) is often used by the poet in his attempt to narrow things down to the particular. Woven in with this array of adjectives is an equally impressive array of adverbs: lightly, partially, slightly, gradually, tightly, suddenly (twice), abruptly, softly, widely, consciously, wonderfully, ineptly, and almost. Taken together, then, this dense web of modifiers helps Williams clarify his subject—what Jed looks like and what he does. Strip away this layer of modifiers, and the poem presents only the archetype of a boy asleep in a bed, waking up. Any boy, doing what any boy might. What Williams has given us is not a portrait, but an account of a particular boy in a particular moment in time, without preventing us from seeing some of the universal in it as well. And I believe the urgency to pay more than usual attention goes beyond a father’s natural interest in his child, but suggests the artist’s obsession with a subject—any subject—so long as it piques his interest and engages his imagination.

If, as Malebranche asserts “Attention is the natural prayer of the soul, ”then each of these poems, more or less, is a prayerful response to some aspect of the world, quotidian though it may be, on which the poet freely lavishes his or her attention. Poetry that stares honors reality and implies a valuation of its commonness, suggesting that much of importance—perhaps all we might finally know—can be found there. It is not anti-metaphysical, but pro-worldly, devoted to the manifest, the here-and-now, as the only sure locus of understanding and truth. It is, perhaps, related to another Williams’s famous dictum: “no ideas, but in things,” yet it is more than that. It involves respect, acceptance, even love of the actual, a curiosity and delight in what is, what exists, without an accompanying sense of judgment or degradation. It does not deny the horrifying or the ugly, but seeks beauty in the most unexpected places, the lowliest things—in gray, weathered fish tubs spangled with herring scales; in the cocked jaw of a loved one’s face misshapen by sleep. Considered as a noun, the venerable O. E. D. defines a stare as: “the power of seeing” and “a condition of amazement, horror, admiration, etc.” (“Why stand you,” writes Shakespeare in ‘The Tempest,’ in this strange stare?”). As a verb its definition is even more explicit: “to gaze fixedly and with eyes wide open.” Is this so different than what we normally think of as being enraptured by something that stops us in our tracks and compels us to attend? In the poetry I’ve been considering, that something is the ordinary world.


Kurt Brown founded of the Aspen Writers’ Conference, and  Writers’ Conferences & Centers (a national association of directors). His poems have appeared in many literary periodicals, and he is the editor of several anthologies including Blues for Bill, for the late William Matthews, from University of Akron Press and his newest (with Harold Schechter), Conversation Pieces: Poems that Talk to Other Poems from Alfred A. Knopf, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series. He is the author of six chapbooks and five full-length collections of poetry, including Return of the Prodigals, More Things in Heaven and Earth, Fables from the Ark, Future Ship, and No Other Paradise. A collection of the poems of Flemish poet Herman de Coninck entitled The Plural of Happiness, which he and his wife translated, was released in the Field Translation Series in 2006.

One response to “Beyond Description: Poetry That Stares–An Essay by Kurt Brown

  1. Having been intrigued with the question of how we see, this was of interest to me. Viewing paintings, for instance, at the Guggenheim in NY, certainly jerks us out of our “staring moments” to which we may have previously been accustomed. Seeing several paintings at once was disconcerting at first, but later, I wondered if the architect, through his design, was commenting on how we see art or read poetry or react to the world around us.