Chesterton and Brande on seeing || The poetry of the crosswalk signal

The word “signal-box” is unpoetical. But the thing signal-box is not unpoetical; it is a place where men, in an agony of vigilance, light blood-red and sea-green fires to keep other men from death. That is the plain, genuine description of what it is; the prose only comes in with what it is called. The word “pillar-box” is unpoetical. But the thing pillar-box is not unpoetical; it is the place to which friends and lovers commit their messages, conscious that when they have done so they are sacred, and not to be touched, not only by others, but even (religious touch!) by themselves.


We think a pillar-box prosaic, because there is no rhyme to it. We think a pillar-box unpoetical, because we have never seen it in a poem. But the bold fact is entirely on the side of poetry. A signal-box is only called a signal-box; it is a house of life and death. A pillar-box is only called a pillar-box; it is a sanctuary of human words.

– G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

Can you imagine seeing the world like this? To walk through the day and see the romance of a mailbox or the poetry of the crosswalk signal, rather than ignoring the former and getting annoyed with the latter while waiting for it to turn.

I recently finished Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. It’s a marvelous book for anyone with the urge to write. One piece of advice that stuck out for me came from a section entitled “Recapturing Innocence of Eye,” where she recommends attempting to recapture the wide-eyed wonder of childhood for half an hour a day. That is, to try to see the people, things, and places around you with fresh eyes, to experience them with a vividness only first encounters usually contain. The idea is, by taking in the world with this level of detail, a writer will gain a plethora of new material to work with for future stories.

I think Chesterton would have agreed with Dorothea Brande about this idea. Take a moment and truly look at the world. See what it is, not what it is called or how you’ve interacted (or not) in times past. However, I also think he would have argued that she wasn’t taking the idea far enough. Recapturing an innocence of eye shouldn’t just be about gathering new material to improve your writing. It should be about becoming more human, more fully ourselves. To see the world as it is, to notice everything around us, is to become more fully alive. If that doesn’t help you become a better writer, I don’t know what will.



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