Some of the world’s most famous and indisputably talented writers have had an interesting relationship with vision and blindness. The poet Homer, whom we don’t know much about, but created the stunning Iliad and Odyssey, was supposedly blind; that may tell us a great deal about the oral tradition of poetry in Ancient Greece, and why so much of the verse depends on mnemonic devices. John Milton, writer of the beautiful and earth-shattering Paradise Lost (a personal fave), struggled with diseases of the eye as an adult, and was almost completely blind by the time of its writing. In fact, several sections refer to a keenly felt sorrow over this; Milton writes when describing the light of heaven, “thee I revisit safe, / And feel thy sovran vital Lamp; but thou / Revisit’st not these eyes, that rowle in vain / To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn; / So thick a drop serene hath quencht thir Orbs, / Or dim suffusion veild.” And in modern times, the great experimental writer James Joyce suffered from chronic iritis, having to undergo numerous painful surgeries; he had extremely poor vision by the time his greatest works were written. These are only a few examples of some of the numerous great writers who lacked some or all of their vision. So it begs the question: what is the relationship between poetry and blindness? Can it actually help our writing abilities to lose access to our most important sense?
1. Create a sense of space
When we read these three writers, we can see some similar techniques that actually strengthen the works and make them so special. All three writers are able to capture a sense of space wonderfully. Homer writes frequently about giant fields or the rocking of ships on the sea; Joyce captures the precise meanderings and street corners of Dublin’s network of alleys and squares (so precisely that each year, on Bloomsday, Ulysses fans can trace the main character’s route through the city); and Milton evocatively captures the vastness of the black lake at the pit of hell. It makes sense that someone whose vision is compromised would have a particularly keen sense of the space in a room and how to move through it. And we don’t have to lose our vision to steal this skill from these writers; having a strong sense of space is a wonderful way to make a reader feel like he or she is there, in the space you have created. To become more aware of how a space feels, try closing your eyes and trying to navigate your own living room. You may trip over something on the floor, but you may be surprised how well you move through a familiar space — we do develop an internal sense of what a space feels like and how we can move through it.
2. Darkness and light
You might think blind writers wouldn’t notice light and dark at all, and that may be true. But writers with limited vision, or the memory of vision, seem to notice it all the more keenly. Homer always notices the darkness of the ocean, calling it “the wine-dark sea.” And Milton is keenly aware of the power of light and dark. In Paradise Lost, he somehow manages to capture the all-consuming dark of hell; and he makes the light of heaven poignant by expressing how much he longs to see it himself. When we see normally, we take light for advantage; but writing becomes special when we take nothing for granted. Try becoming like an impressionist painter for a day, noticing how light moves, how it changes, and how it alters the things it reflects off of.
3. Let other senses come to life.
The benefit of blindness that everyone is aware of, of course, is that it makes other senses sharper. We can see a similar attention to the other senses in these three writers’ works. Touch, smell, and taste come to life in these writers’ stories. Milton has a great deal about smell, such as the perfumed air of Eden and the foul tar and ash of hell. Joyce has a fixation on touch, particularly in terms of the sensual. In several scenes initially deemed obscene, he describes masturbation, bowel movements, and other normally very private experiences in shocking detail. He, too, has a few choice moments of smell and taste, such as when he describes cooking kidneys and explains that they still have the slight taste of urine in them! These details are the kind that make his world real, sensual, and sensory.
What other benefits and oddities can we find in the writing of the blind? Whenever we encounter the perspective of someone with a different view on the world, it’s useful to consider what we can learn from this, and what we can steal for ourselves.