Christian Wiman (My Bright Abyss, 51-2) claims that some poets—“surprisingly few”—possess “a very particular gift for making a thing at once shine forth in its ‘thingness' and ramify beyond its own dimensions.” He sites several lines from Norman MacCaig:

“Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass / And hang zigzag on hedges.”

“The black cow is two native carriers / Bringing its belly home, slung from a pole.”

This is not, Wiman thinks, a matter of “the extraordinary discovered within the ordinary,” which he dismisses as “a cliche of poetic perception.” Something more is at work:

What happens is some mysterious resonance between thing and language, mind and matter, that reveals—and it does feel like revelation—a reality beyond the one we ordinarily see. Contemporary physicists talk about something called ‘quantum weirdness,' which refers to the fact that an observed particle behaves very differently from one that is unobserved. An observed particle passed through a screen will always go through one hole. A particle that is unobserved but mechanically monitored will pass through multiple holes at the same time. What this suggests is that what we call reality is conditioned by the limitations of our senses, and there is some other reality much larger and more complex than we are able to achieve.

What comes through in MacCaig's lines is not a glimpse of “some mystical world,” but “of multiple dimensions within a single perception. They are not discovering the extraordinary within the ordinary. They are, for the briefest of instants, perceiving something of reality as it truly is.”

One wonders, though, if the limitation of “briefest of instants” is conditioned by the way we are taught to see. Would it be different for a poet who lived in constant expectancy of seeing “multiple dimensions within a single perception”?

More on: poetry