To the writer, or to this writer anyway, some things in this world seem to have an intrinsic vibrancy — say, a holy mountain in Tibet — while others — a pair of socks, perhaps — just don’t.
The mountain has drama, seems special, suggests an unfolding story. The socks? I don’t see much life in them. When my feet are cold, I pull on a pair of socks, all the while thinking about other things. Nothing in the socks themselves compels.
And that brings me to a question. Where do we find compelling images for our writing? The other day one of my students asked me this, and it seems worth pondering. Are the compelling images all mountains, in a manner of speaking, or can socks too claim vibrancy? Is there a place in our writing for the humble socks of this world? If there is, what is the process whereby socks gain the breath and immediacy of a compelling image?
A number of years ago I visited a museum in England. At this point, I don’t remember its actual name, but I think of it as The Museum of The Mundane. It was filled with commonplace objects — an old fashioned washing machine, a bucket for wringing out a mop, a Singer sewing machine (quite beautiful with its gold lettering). Set off by themselves, museum-ified, the objects were meant to be looked at directly, closely, with museum-eyes. It was, in truth, a wonderful experience to see and feel the commonplace brought to life, both through its placement in a museum (thus its specialness) and through our attention.
Leaving the museum, I looked at things in a somewhat different way, with more time, more openness, and a different focus. As I saw what I might write about, ordinary objects acquired specialness. To be able to write compelling images begins, then, with acts of attention.
To be in the world. To be in love with matter. To be, then, a materialist is part of this, but not a materialist who cherishes the status of his house, which is an abstraction, but who notices the gradation of color in a wood floor, appreciates how a window slides within its frame.
How loosely or tightly are the socks knit? How are they dyed? How soft or harsh do they feel to the hand? Do the toenails catch on the threads?
And then for the writing itself? Julie Larios, in her last posting, says, “specificity and physicality are at the root of poetry.” I think she would agree that that is also true for prose, although perhaps without quite the extended intensity. But the concentration, the physicality, the specificity still need to be there. With accuracy, images can be so filled with life that they seem to lift off the page.
Returning to the mountain, it’s still there for the writer as a potent image of the sublime. But a subtle and powerful alchemy can transform the socks. When socks, well done, appear in our writing, they can take our ordinary experiences and find poignancy within them, elevate them. And because most of us have experienced “sock lives” rather than “mountain lives,” these images are a particular kind of gift, one which imbues our lives with meaning.
Let’s go to a master on socks and other matters, Pablo Neruda:
ODE TO MY SOCKS
Mara Mori brought me
a pair of socks
which she knitted herself
with her sheepherder’s hands,
two socks as soft as rabbits.
I slipped my feet into them
as if they were two cases
knitted with threads of twilight and goatskin,
my feet were two fish made of wool,
two long sharks
sea blue, shot through
by one golden thread,
two immense blackbirds,
my feet were honored in this way
by these heavenly socks.
They were so handsome for the first time
my feet seemed to me unacceptable
like two decrepit firemen,
firemen unworthy of that woven fire,
of those glowing socks.
Nevertheless, I resisted the sharp temptation
to save them somewhere as schoolboys
as learned men collect
I resisted the mad impulse to put them
in a golden cage and each day give them
birdseed and pieces of pink melon.
Like explorers in the jungle
who hand over the very rare green deer
to the spit and eat it with remorse,
I stretched out my feet and pulled on
the magnificent socks and then my shoes.
The moral of my ode is this:
beauty is twice beauty
and what is good is doubly good
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool in winter.