Clark McKowen, Site Author
On the Person in the Mirror
[ These posts can be read separately, but they are sequential, too, each continuing from where the previous one left off. So if you would like to follow the thought process, start with the first posting. There’s a list of recent posts to the left of each page.]
It’s about time to post the John Keats sonnet that provided the title of this site. It’s in the first line: “Much have I travelled in the realms of gold.” Sounds poetic, doesn’t it, pretty words, hyperbole – not to be taken literally. But what if those words could be taken literally, what if Keats really did mean that
There are realms so vivid and so intense that they flood the senses with brilliant golden light?
What I can safely say is that:
We all live in those realms quite literally all the time.
The manuscript for this web site is full of reports of people who have traveled in the realms of gold. In fact, one such person is in your mirror every morning, as you well know, though you may forget from time to time and even long stretches of time. Those realms are imprinted on your nervous system and flow in the blood pulsing in your veins. And I do mean that quite literally.
Here’s the poem, written in 1816, almost 200 years ago:
On first looking into Chapman’s Homer.
Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
My nerve endings are hibernating
I’m sure that poem isn’t imprinted on the nerve endings of many readers these days. It wasn’t particularly meaningful to my wife when I asked her take on it. “My nerve endings are hibernating,” she said. My students and I discovered a way to fix that, though. When our senses were hibernating, we would do the surface-features game. It worked every time.
If we happened on a poem lying around in some dusty book, or maybe an oil slick on the wet driveway or some petals from a cherry tree – things that didn’t seem to have anything to do with our own realms of gold – we would start in ticking off surface features.
We would go around the room, and each person would point out one detail, anything at all, even as in this poem something as simple as the spelling of travelled or that the poet’s name is John Keats. As best we could, we avoided interpretations and stabs at meaning. We wanted to get a good look at what was right there on the surface, just the facts. This put us all on the same footing.
We had all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds in our classes, and in the surface-features game everyone got to play. Someone might notice the rhyming, and someone else might say that seen doesn’t rhyme with been – unless the poet happens to be English, as some student was bound to point out. Someone might say there are fourteen lines, someone else might say that that’s a sonnet, and another would figure out the rhyme pattern (abba abba cdcdcd). Apollo, Homer, Chapman? These days, someone would probably google those – and Darien and Cortez, and so on.
As though a light had been turned on
But then, as we continued, something remarkable began to happen. I remember doing this with Pieter Bruegel’s painting, Children’s Games. I had thought it would be fun to see what all Bruegel had painted into it. To our surprise and delight, every time someone pointed to something, it was over that detail. The painting (it could have been this Keats poem or a spider web) got more and more vivid with each new discovery (dis-covery). There was an uncanny sensation of the lighting being turned up; the painting kept getting brighter. And our senses started coming out of hibernation. We illuminated the Bruegel painting quite literally by concentrating our beam of attention on it. It’s a matter of seeing what’s there.
The Surface-Features Game
The surface-features game turned out to have many applications. You can use it to look at a clump of grass, a Robert Frost poem, an argument, a photograph, and just about anything. It disciplines the conscious mind to pay attention long enough for insight to kick in, and you begin to find your way back to the realms of gold. It could also be described as tuning your body and mind for a melodic day.
I’ll tell more about my own experience with “On Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” in the next post, but I’ll finish this one with how to go about the surface-features process:
● Look around for a piece of art – a painting, a sculpture, a cigarette butt, something you hate, something you like, it doesn’t matter – and jot down surface features till you run out or get bored. (I’d be surprised if you got bored.)
Try to keep your observations as emotion-neutral and as non-judgmental as you can. This is your poem, after all, so I can’t be certain of your findings, but
● Typically sometime during the process your experience of this image is going to shift into the all-at-once mode, and you will click over from the facts to an intense vision of them (some few of us – geniuses, the great poets and saints–are always there). You will see this image in a way you never did before. You will begin to see as its creator saw – sometimes seeing even more than its creator saw.
The Depth and Breadth of Meaning
When you first look at the image, you get a sort of snapshot. Then you do the surface-features game. Then you step back and you see the image again as whole but this time you really see it. Or at least you get a toe-hold. There is no end to what’s there, right on the surface – which, of course, is everything, including all the depth and breadth of meaning you create in relation to it.