Think like an artist

Think like an artist

 

Introduction to Poetry

BY BILLY COLLINS

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

 

I referenced this poem briefly in a recent post. Having taught high schoolers both art and poetry, it both makes me laugh and it speaks to me. Deeply. 

And not because I find myself so far removed from the students’ obsession with deeper or, worse, hidden meanings, but because I find the impulses so familiar. What is the one thing I can reduce this to and thus eliminate it all together, letting what it means be what it is.

The Power of “I See”

It was art that helped me with this inclination to reduce. Namely, a professor who at critiques where we would sit in a circle and discuss everyone’s work, made us begin each statement with “I see.” This liberated us completely from having to say anything particularly profound (every self-conscious nineteen year old’s worst fear). All we had to do was name something we were looking at, and the simpler and more objective the statement the better. For example, my professor preferred we say things like, “I see a bright red red circle in the top corner and a smaller one of a very similar but not exactly the same red in the bottom” instead of “I see a sun and I see beauty.” The first comment gets us to look at the parts of the painting in relation to each other. The second makes an obvious statement followed by a judgment. 

It was like a silly version of “Simon Says,” and we struggled, often beginning our sentences with “I like” and not “I see” which would trigger a do over. I tried this with my own students during the six years that I taught. They struggled too, but insistence on “I see” eventually led us to discover design elements we’d not noticed before. One person would inevitably see something that made us say “Aha!” 

I see a series of vertical lines

I see muted colors

I see triangles everywhere

I see big strokes in the foreground and tiny ones in the background

I see thick black lines

I see organic shapes.

It didn’t matter what you said as long as it wasn’t a value statement or a recitation of what was obvious– I see a bowl of fruit when that was overtly the subject matter– and everyone could do it.

I tried to use this same technique with the poems I taught. My students always wanted to jump ahead to what a poem meant, as though it were a math problem to be solved. If I had been able to give them an equation, many of them would have gladly and joyfully accepted as they eagerly plugged in symbols and rhymes into the variables to arrive at that blessed “deeper meaning.” 

Instead of saying things like “this poem means we should live life to the fullest,” I’d project the poem onto the smart board and ask for “I see” statements: “I see four stanzas with two lines in each” or “I see images of cold in the first and last stanza and ones of warmth in the middle” or “I see a question mark at the end and notice it is the only punctuation.” Once we observed, we saw more. We appreciated more. We had more to discuss. We saw more not of the one thing the poem “meant” but more of its beauty, more of its nuance, more of its contours. We could behold it.

I realize now that the key to appreciating or excavating any work of art is just to pay close attention to it, setting aside our expectations and assumptions as best that we can.

Now I use “I see” (or try to) for more than art and poetry. I use it for understanding my kids– I see folded arms or a sly smile. This is just information. And I’m just gathering it. I use it when I read something I don’t fully understand. I used it last night when the oldest showed me a ballet on youtube that diverged from the conventions we typically associate with ballet. Instead of immediately jumping to “I don’t get it,” I thought about what I was seeing. The contrast in the bodies, the unusual shapes they were making.

“I see” can take me from ungrounded speculation and assumption to sincere curiosity. It takes me from recklessly jumping to conclusions to being observant, open minded, and curious. 

I wonder what would happen if I always started with “I see” instead of “I know” or “I think.” I wonder what would happen if I treated difficult topics or conversations like an art or poetry critique, looking first to observe, next to make connections, and last to make any value judgments or conclusions. 

I share this because I think I am the best version of myself when I think like an artist– leaning into curiosity, openness, and discovery. I think I’m the best version of myself when I trust that my observations (when they are particularly astute and when they are simple) will lead me somewhere worth going.

Does this make sense to you? Do you ever think like an artist? I would love to know your thoughts.

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