The poet Ian McMillan is very fond of early morning strolls, and often posts intriguing snippets on Twitter, of the things he observes while out walking. Reading these tweets, you get the impression that the world has altered ever so slightly.
Snails slither towards discarded beer cans, eagerly anticipating a party that is still days ahead. Strange geometric patterns occur, as cats, cigarette butts and lipstick stained banana skins converge on the pavement. Sofas dumped along railway lines, transform “the whole morning into a living room.”
It’s a way of looking at the world that not all of us possess. But McMillan is a poet, and he sees things through a poet’s eyes.
Until I stumbled upon McMillan’s Twitter feed, I had never really thought much about different ways of seeing. True, writers have always been able to describe the world around them lyrically or poetically, but I had always considered this to be an artistic endeavour.
The writer carefully considered what he saw and used language to transform those observations into art. Twitter however, is a more spontaneous, off the cuff medium. When Ian McMillan tweets his daily walks, we are there with him more or less in real time. Walking alongside him and seeing things the way he sees them.
And it is this spontaneity that has made me wonder whether a poet, rather than creating, or transforming the world around him with words, actually experiences it differently from the rest of us, precisely because of the language he has at his disposal.
And so, by way of experiment, I took myself for a walk, to try and discover whether I too could glimpse the world through such a poetic lens. As a keen reader and a writer, I assumed I possessed both the language, and the way of looking at the world, necessary for such an endeavour.
Beware of hubristic thoughts. How easy it is to forget this.
For it was only when I set out to pay close attention to things, that I became aware of how blind you can become to your surroundings when you walk around it so frequently.
Habituation, it seems, breeds a certain nonchalance.
As a dog owner, I am out on the streets on a daily basis, making the rounds of the various lampposts and grassy verges that dogs are prone to seek out. And perhaps because I am walking the dog, rather than taking a walk, I have found myself strangely detached from my surroundings. I pay attention to the dog and very little else.
But now that I had expanded my purpose to encompass actual observation, I was startled to discover things that I had never noticed before.
The door that at some point had been painted lime green. A Lebanese flag, hanging in someone’s front window. The parking meters that have been dismantled and replaced with some sort of mobile phone system. The colour coordinated balcony, where the red plant pots match the deck chairs and the geraniums.
At first I was pleased with my observations. I was noticing details. Things that I had previously been unaware of. I was on to something.
But as I walked along I began to realise that, despite my deliberate and heightened awareness, I still could not quite see the world the way McMillan sees it. There was no poeticism in those moments. On the contrary, my vision was acutely literal. I was noting down the things that were around me. But I was not noticing them. I was not creating some sort of narrative to develop them.
If I was to encounter a banana skin on the pavement right now, I thought, I would see only that. A banana skin.
Any mysterious lipstick stains, any delicious story that they may contain, would be noted fleetingly, if at all. The imagination required to see beyond the thing in front of me, to transform it into something quirky, and delightful, and poetic, seemed beyond me.
I walked on, lost in thought and oblivious once again to my surroundings. Thoughts of poets clouding my vision. Just what was it that made the world of the poet so different?
Language of course is what differentiates the poet from the rest of us.
And once again, the question arose.
Do the words themselves in some way form the world that the poet sees?
I remembered then, those fascinating colour perception experiments that were conducted with the Himba tribe of northern Namibia. If you ask the Himba the colour of water, they will say it is white. Milky white. Point to the sky, and they will agree it is black. Black as coal.
But this is not simply some linguistic idiosyncrasy. The Himba do not merely say that water is white, while seeing it to be blue or clear. Their perception of it actually is white.
The reason for this is due to the way language affects our brains.
For the Himba, the sky is black (or dark) because they have only one word – Zuzu – for dark shades of blue, red, green and purple. And this simple categorisation determines what they see. They literally see things differently to someone whose language allows for a greater, more nuanced, range of colour categories.
Perhaps something similar happens deep inside the brains of a poet – or any writer for that matter? Perhaps the language they use to formulate the descriptions of the world around them, in turn shapes what it is that is seen?
What McMillan’s casual tweets seem to suggest however, is that it’s not simply a matter of having a rich and kaleidoscopic vocabulary at your disposal.
It’s the continuous creative use of that language to describe and think about things that somehow alters the way you see things. So that it becomes intuitive to see the world through the prism of this varied lexicology.
I decided to go for another walk.
Only this time, I was going to approach it in a more relaxed fashion. Simply walk and see what happened, rather than force myself to closely inspect my surroundings.
I admit that I was not immediately successful. But as is the case with such things, the Eureka moment often occurs long after you have forgotten what it was you had set out to do.
In my case it involved an improvised garden that had been erected on the pavement close to my house. It’s a ramshackle affair, full of broken pots and weeds and strange bric-a-brac. To most people’s eyes it would appear to be nothing more than a nuisance. A mess to be tidied up, or cleared away. That’s certainly how I always viewed it as I negotiated my way around it.
And then suddenly it was there. In a way it never had been before.
The woman who planted and tended the garden, lived in the apartment block facing it. She sat there, at her window, and kept watch over her little patch of flowerpots. I knew this, because she had scolded me once for allowing the dog to sniff around amongst them, and cock a defiant leg at a bushel of lavender.
I had dismissed her then, as a lonely eccentric. Someone who didn’t acknowledge the council rules and regulations, with regard to obstructing the pavement. But I thought of her then, as I sauntered past her garden, and found a narrative developing.
I imagined her tending to the seedlings as they developed on her window ledge. The conversation she had with these little buds. In my mind she would tell them about the garden she would bring them to. Down there on the pavement where she could still watch over them. She explained the joy they would bring to passers-by. Warn them, of the grey, officious fools that would try to remove them.
The surprising thing about this however, was not that the narrative had suddenly developed as I walked along, but that I was actually experiencing it more as déjà vu. The story, I realised, had already formed there, in my brain, a long time ago.
Certainly I had thought about the woman and her garden, on many occasions. Her remonstrations had irked me at the time, and I had taken issue with the fact that she was scolding me, when, really, it was her dishevelled pile of pots that was the greater nuisance.
But at some level, my pettiness had developed into something closer to understanding, and I had come, without realising it, to sympathise with the rebellious gardener.
And so her story, as I had told it to myself at a subconscious level, now revealed itself to me, as I walked by and caught the scent of lavender again. The real world moment, calling forth the imagined one, each indistinguishable from the other.
At first I was momentarily confused as to how the simple smell of lavender could conjure up the story I had created.
Until I realised that the brain reacts in the same way to both things. The smell of lavender stimulates the olfactory areas of the brain. But simply reading the word lavender can have the same effect.
In my mind, I had incorporated both the smell of the lavender and the word itself into one experience. Which surprised me somewhat.
Until this moment, I had assumed that I was taking note of my surroundings as I walked around the neighbourhood, in order to construct a mental map. The lavender was nothing more than a trigger for a specific “place cell” in my brain.
I would walk by, and my brain would take note of my position by recognising the lavender pot.
It’s how our brains ensure we don’t get lost every time we set foot out the door.
But this still did not explain, however, how the story I had developed, had come into being.
What was it that had happened, that allowed me to take all of this sensory information, enrich it, and transform it into something fictional?
I thought then about the books I read. Of the pictures that form in my head when I read a beautifully observed landscape. The imagery that is formed by a well written description, can be as vivid and as real as a painting or a photograph. In some cases, it can even take on a cinematic quality, the scene described coming to life inside and somehow taking hold there, within the brain, in much the same way as a memory.
Perhaps this constant exposure to descriptive imagery resulted in a similarly nuanced formation of my own memory?
I walked past the lavender. My brain fired and recognised where I was. But then, as if to reinforce that memory, it added another layer. This one composed of all those times I had encountered the word lavender. And all of this somehow coming together, over time, to form something new.
A story based on the smell of flower pots, the sight of the woman at her window, her thoughts somehow etched on her face, that I had observed without being aware of it. A book I had once read set during a lavender scented summer in Provence. All of it mysteriously combining.
Is this how we create things, I wondered. Is this how the artistic brain works?
A slightly nasal New York voice interrupted me. Richard Feynman on a flower. How could I forget that?
Feynman had an artist friend who proclaimed that, as a scientist, Feynman could not appreciate the beauty of a flower in quite the same way as an artist. Feynman had famously contradicted this opinion, by explaining how a scientist’s knowledge can actually add to the beauty of a flower, by providing extra insights and dimensions that served only to deepen our appreciation of it.
Perhaps that’s all it takes after all, I realised. You have at your disposal a wonderful toolbox of language, or mathematics, or simply a paintbrush. And you use this box of tricks to gain insights into the world, be they real or imagined, fact or theory.
And the joy that lies in admiring a beautiful landscape, or understanding a fundamental law of nature, comes from our ability to express our awe and wonder in these discoveries in whatever way we can.
And though this may mean that I can never truly become a poet, I’ve come to appreciate and understand that my own little way of looking at the world, while perhaps being less aesthetic than that of a poet’s, is nevertheless intriguing.
To celebrate this little triumph of personal insight, I send a tweet to Ian McMillan. enough in its own right.
I tell him about the blackbird that was perched one evening on the edge of a high rise apartment block in my neighbourhood. It sang for close to an hour. A call and response with its own echo, as its chirps ricocheted between the buildings. People on the street craned their necks upwards and smiled as they tried to spot the exuberant little bird that sang as night descended.
And in reply, a simple tweet that lets me believe that perhaps, after all, I am beginning to understand what it means to be a poet.