Monday, November 16, 2009

Seeing

posted by Chet at 12:13 PM UTC

I was browsing my Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens, looking for a line I sorta remembered, when I came upon this: "Description is revelation."

It is a line I used in Honey From Stone. "Description is revelation," I wrote, quoting (I thought) the Irish poet Michael McLaverty (as quoted by Seamus Heaney).

Actually, I wrote "Description is revelation. Seeing is praise."

So McLaverty, apparently, was quoting Stevens. Or was he?

A note on the internet suggested that McLaverty was quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins. I checked a concordance of Hopkins' poetry yesterday, and found no incidence of "description" or "revelation." Nor was either word in the index of his correspondence.

So, for the moment, Wallace Stevens gets the credit.

Except now I am surprised that I used the line at all. If I were writing Honey From Stone today, I would reverse the terms: "Seeing is revelation. Description is praise." In this, I would be echoing the 19th-century critic John Ruskin: "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way."

I know what Stevens and McLaverty meant by "Description is revelation": The power of art to illuminate the deeper, hidden meaning of things, to go to the place where mind and things intersect. And that was probably what I meant too, all those years ago when I wrote Honey From Stone. But the older I get, the less interested I am in hidden meanings, in revelation, in the supposed transcendent. More and more I value close observation and plain description. Art, yes, but not art that obfuscates, that smothers the thing itself with imposed "meaning." I don't want interpretation. Give me art or science that separates the thing itself from the matrix of confused existence and lets us see it as it is.

The photographer Edward Weston was much concerned with exact seeing and description. His most controversial photograph was titled "Shell and Rock -- Arrangement," for which he carefully placed a shell in a hollow of rock before photographing it. A friend called it "a stunt," a theatrical ploy. "The greatness of your work, Edward, is that you allow nature to talk her own language," said the friend, disapprovingly. Weston defended the photograph, but one can tell from his Daybooks that he had niggling doubts. It is, I believe, one of his least successful photographs. Shell or rock alone, allowed to speak for themselves, would have been more typical of his work. By arranging them together he let mind intrude in a way that diluted the power of the thing itself.

Am I being pedantic? Perhaps. Or perhaps it's the hankering of someone growing older for the pure, unadorned selfness of existence.