the world in a grain of sand: incorporating a sense of scale in poetry

By Meg Winikates, twitter: @mwinikates

Ask a group of people how they define poetry, and chances are good at least one of them will answer in terms of scale: poetry delivers maximum impact with minimum word count. Each word bears greater weight than in average daily conversation, and each line is precisely crafted to fit the scope of its sense.

So too can visual art create an impact more sizeable than its frame.  

As someone who works in museums, I have always been drawn to ekphrastic poetry, and the practice of making one form of art inspired by—or better yet in conversation with—another. This past spring, I found myself inspired by the Peabody Essex Museum’s Art & Nature Center, and their current show, Sizing it Up (open until September 18, 2016).

Scale is an amorphous concept, encompassing all of time and space, to the extreme limits of human understanding, both micro and macro. For the purposes of this exercise in exploring scale, let’s limit ourselves to these four types:

  • Visual: Comparisons within the range of human perception – contemplating a vast vista or sharp focus on the whorls of a fingerprint

  • Extra-visual: Taking in scale that is too extremely small or large for unaided human perception through tools like telescopes and microscopes, extending the range of human understanding, like scanning electron microscopes and radio imagery of the edge of the known universe

  • Physical: Examining something in relation to your own body, such as a ruby the size of your fist or a heart the size of your house

  • Constructed:  Using the physical restrictions of your page or canvas to inform the scope of your work in poetry or art

Too abstract still? Try this to get your brain in gear: Pick a piece of paper that is not the same size as your usual notebook. Post-it notes, a section of register tape, an index card, or an envelope flap are all good options. (Emily Dickinson is particularly well known for using all sorts of paper scraps when writing, including the backs of chocolate wrappers.) Draft a poem where each line fits the paper exactly; many short lines or much longer ones. Try rewriting it on a different size of paper and adjust the lines accordingly. How does it shake up the rhythm, speed, and sense of your poem fragment?

Sometimes a big (or small) idea is so compelling that artists from many mediums are drawn to it. Therefore, when I led a workshop on this topic for the most recent Massachusetts Poetry Festival, I identified a few works on exhibits I loved and paired them with poems that spoke to similar themes. Angela Palmer’s Searching for Goldilocks, for instance, depicts translucent slices of space and etched circles for all the exoplanets NASA has identified, including the ones in ‘the Goldilocks zone’ which can support life as we understand it.  I encouraged people to look closely at that work while we read aloud Joanna Tilsley’s “Kepler 62-F.” On a smaller scale, we experienced the nose-to-moss wonder of Vaughn Bell’s Metropolis while reading "The Scale of Things," by Margaret Tait: “There’s a whole country at the foot of the stone/If you care to look.”  

Scale’s impact, whether in visual or literary art, is ultimately personal. One of the pieces I keep returning to in the Art & Nature Center show is Bryant Austin’s Humpback Whale Calf I, from 2006. The photographic print is perfectly to scale, such that standing in front of it is equivalent to hanging in the water eye to eye with a young whale. Even in black and white, the image is so remarkable that as a scuba diver I can practically feel the weight of the water around me, standing dry footed in the gallery. (I’m still working on that poem, in fact.)

I encourage you to check out Sizing it Up between now and mid-September if you’re in the Salem area. If not, spend a bit of time in your local park, nose-to-bark or ears-to-sky, and try incorporating scale into your next poem.

Need a place to start? Try one of these scale prompts:

  • Look at your neighborhood, a place you used to live, or a place you want to visit, using Google Earth. How does the aerial view change your perception of that place?

  • Find a corner of your back yard, local park, or other favorite spot. Get down on the ground; what do you see? Do you notice things you usually walk past? How do things change looking up from here as well?

  • Listen to sounds off of NASA’s free Soundcloud tracks: or listen to the music of the EP 80UA created using those tracks:

  • Write to the soundtrack of space. How can you get those sounds in your writing?

Mass Poetry Fest’16 workshop participants experiencing   Metropolis  .

Mass Poetry Fest’16 workshop participants experiencing Metropolis.

The Scale of Things
by Margaret Tait
originally published in The Hen and the Bees, 1960

There’s a whole country at the foot of the stone
If you care to look
These are the stones we have instead of trees
In the north.
Our trees all got lost,
Blown over or cut down
Long long ago, and some of them lie there still in the
peat moss
Or fossilized in limestone.
At the shady foot of trees
Certain things grow,
But at the foot of stone grow the sun-loving
wind–resisting short plants
With very small bright flowers
And compact, precise leaves.
The wind whips the tight stems into a vibration,
But they don’t break.
The full light of the sun reaches right down to the
And reflects obliquely and sideways in among and
under the snug leaves,
And settles on the stone too,
Makes a glow there,
A sufficient warmth and clarified light.
The stunning frequencies seem to get absorbed
And if you stare closely at the stone
It’s a calm light, not too blue,
Precisely indicating its variegated surface.
The great stone stands,
On a different scale, in a way, from the minute plants
at its base.
A proliferating green lichen
Grows on it
As well as round golden coin-patches of another
common lichen,
And only in the earth right up to the very stone but
not on it
Grow the crisp grass
And all the tiny plants and flowers
Which, together interlaced and inter-related,
Make the fine springing turf which people and animals
walk on.


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About the Author

Margaret Winikates is a writer and museum educator from Boston, MA.  She writes poetry and fiction as well as Brain Popcorn, a blog on interdisciplinary education.  Meg has also been a contributing writer to the Peabody Essex Museum blog, Connected.  She majored in English Literature and Language at Harvard University and has been a reader for Mass Poetry’s U35 series.  She currently lives in Arlington, MA, and works for the New England Museum Association.