Former Poet Laureate Billy Collins has quipped that poetry will continue until everything has been compared to everything else. I like to play with that in design and writing, to bring in something seemingly unrelated and let it illuminate a previously invisible aspect of the subject. It’s one of the joys of collaborating with other people – their contributions always open a door into new possibilities.
Comparison reveals hidden connections. The poet Pablo Neruda’s view of art has been described as coming out of a longing for mutuality. Isn’t that what poets do so well? Rilke asks a knight to tell us how, by remaining armored, we miss out on the beauties and joys of the world. Or he erects a bridge to give us a way to move between contrasting (possibly warring) aspects of ourselves, especially to try out our little-used qualities.
Maybe another thing Billy Collins means is that it’s possible to compare anything to anything else. It’s at least worth a try and may yield valuable gifts. Or, just as likely, it could flop, if I’m not up for it right then or open enough to receive the insight. It’s all such a shifting, constantly re-forming reality anyway. One moment, I see something amazing and fresh and in the next, the door evaporates.
The light passing through a lone red leaf on a tree branch may invite comparison to the glow of a backlit ear, an uncut gem, a slice of beet, or leather. It’s a call to let myself be captivated by an image, as when I noticed a moth trapped inside the clear plastic bubble of a taillight on the car in front of me. That image invited me to delve deeper through language, and I was rewarded with a surprising insight into how I am living in this world.
In architecture school, we called this mutuality “both-and.” I am captivated by the idea that two things can have their own unique identities and together form a third, also unique thing.
This is most evident at thresholds. The space in a doorway is neither inside nor outside; it is both. It is also a third place, unique and distinct from the other two. Really thick walls make this more evident. Picture a window in a castle, with seats and a tabletop carved into the thickness of the stone walls, then whitewashed to reflect the light. You can literally occupy a space neither inside nor outside, a place that is the best of both.
In a way, Collins is saying that these thresholds exist everywhere between worlds, between two things or two states of being. I imagine that poets notice doorways wherever they go and whatever they are doing. A poet can’t cut up an apple or braise kale without one of these doorways cracking open and tempting them in to have a look around.
Comparing could be a useful tool for weathering this time on the threshold between stories. The very existence of art and poetry throughout human history leads me to guess that threshold times aren’t so very unusual. Rilke sensed the coming darkness and violence from the threshold of the early 20th century. Mary Oliver’s threshold is a generous invitation to experience the wonder of our kinship with the natural world. The handprints and animals painted in caves millennia ago revealed a growing self-awareness, the threshold of separation into a human-centric experience of the world.
With both-and as the operating principle, I may even find my way to comparing a Wall Street Journal editorial gleefully reasserting the primacy of fossil fuels to an essay by Wendell Berry about the miracles of good soil and community. I can call on poetry to drop pebbles into the waters of dissonance and yield precious patterns of insight for how to live.