Object Lessons

What Sparks Poetry is a serialized feature in which we invite poets to explore experiences and ideas that spark new poems. 

In our current series, Object Lessons, we’re thinking about the relationship between the experienced and imagined world. We have asked our editors and invited poets to present one of their own poems in combination with the object that inspired it, and to meditate on the magical journey from object to poem. 
Each essay is accompanied by a writing prompt which we hope you will find useful in your own writing practice or in the classroom.

Aaron McCollough on “Closed on Three Sides, Open on One”

Is there an objective world? One of the older, modern philosophical questions. Yes, well… yes and no, is my answer to that question and my poetry’s answer. Whatever objective world there may be, I have only limited access to it as it does to me. What is most real abides not in an independent, verifiable place outside myself nor somewhere hidden deep inside me; rather, what is most real grows in the meeting place. As the great but under-appreciated Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset says: “absolute reality, as life, is at once immanent and transcendent… I am not my life. This, which is reality, is composed of myself and things. The things are not I, nor am I the things. We are mutually transcendent, but we are both immanent in that absolute coexistence which is life” (Some Lessons in Metaphysics, 158).

In my poems and in my poems’ engagement with things, I have tried to get at this “absolute reality.” What’s the right verb trying to do that? Document? Capture? There isn’t a good verb for it other than “live”; in my poems and in my poems’ engagement with things, I have tried to live this absolute reality. I’m not sure what success could really look like here, but the poem I’m sharing “Closed on Three Sides, Open on One” meets my basic intuitive requirements. It comes from my fourth book, Underlight, which I was writing from around 2008 to 2011, when my wife and I were living in the first home we ever owned, a 616-square-foot bungalow with serious foundation issues, on the edge of Ann Arbor, Michigan. At that time, I had not read Ortega, and so I wouldn’t have articulated things quite as I am doing right now — indeed, I would have articulated things as I did, as I did in this poem. Still, I was already trying to present, to live this poetic inter-relationship of myself to things, to the big thing of a house and the little things that make a house what it is (including the two frail bodies it shelters, their love and other emotions, the terrarium one is fostering, the fleeting notes of music they play, the one blended thing of their two bodies and two selves in “that absolute coexistence which is life”). Words break on this subject. Life comes out.

Writing Prompt

Compound Thing

If things are not as self-contained as we habitually consider them to be and if things also aren’t as available to being contained (or owned?) by us as we tend to treat them, then how do we write about that…? Where do we start if we want to write about what Ortega would call “absolute reality”? Who knows? In my own practice, I tend to gravitate towards undeniably complex things (a house) and/or the many aspects that make up a thing — call it the objective qualities of the thing. Its facets, if you like.

Try breaking down the elements of the objects of your immediate world into their smallest perceptible parts. Don’t limit yourself to the parts perceptible to other people — meaning, be sure to include the fragmentary details from your own subjective inventory that are inherent to your experience of the object and its parts. For example, guitars and coffins are inherent aspects of a house, right? Well, they are for me. We can argue about it, but why not just write your own poem instead?

Share This Post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

Print This Post

Share on print
Aaron Mccollough

Aaron McCollough

Aaron McCollough is the author of six books of poetry. Most recently, Rank was published by the University of Iowa Press. His poems have appeared in Boston Review, A Public Space, Denver Quarterly, Fence, VOLT, and jubilat. With Karla Kelsey, he co-edits SplitLevel Texts. He is Head of Partner Success at Ubiquity Press.