The Connection Between Poetry and Blindness, and How We Can Use It

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.


5 comments

  1. A good friend in college was blind, and she was one of three other girls with whom I shared an apartment in college senior year. Sharon would fill a pot with water, carefully placing her finger at the point to which she wanted to fill the pot — and by touch, she knew when it was full. She also could tell the level of water in a glass by sound. I am still aware as I fill my water bottle of the rising tone as the bottle fills.

  2. Michael Washburn says:

    If the pool of examples is limited to three, counterexamples come readily to mind. Aldous Huxley, who was partially blind, can most charitably be described as an interesting failure — a mediocre novelist whose work, especially later in his career, has a self-indulgent, ponderous quality, as if he is trying to distract the reader from the lack of a strong narrative with one flashy intellectual bauble after another. (Don’t get me wrong, I am all in favor of the “novel of ideas” if it has discipline and coherence.) Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh on a bad day wrote better sentences than Huxley wrote in his life. Although many vision-impaired people are amazingly gifted, I also note that James Thurber, Jorge Luis Borges, and Wyndham Lewis are very good writers who nevertheless fall short of Saki, Franz Kafka, and Ezra Pound. While I find many of your observations quite astute (as I’ve said before), I’m unconvinced of a causal relationship here.

  3. mary brady says:

    Personally, I think Borges trumps every other writer mentioned in Mr. Washburn’s comment. But that’s my opinion & opinions are like elbows: everyone has one or two.

    In his documentary about the deaf & blind, Werner Herzog points out that blindness is not necessarily a smooth field of black in front of the eyes. It can be a maddening play of light & dark ‘blobs’ at all times. And deafness is not always pure silence. It can be a roar of meaningless sounds.

    This surprised me mightily & makes me admire blind &/or deaf writers greatly. They may well have more, not fewer, distractions. Imagine if your deafness meant you suddenly heard a very loud waterfall after hours of a low hum. This could be pretty disorienting.

    I think you HAVE hit on an interesting correlation between blindness & writing, BLH. So much of our ‘sight’ is in the amygdala, the ancient brain. Blind people can walk down halls strewn with boxes & they’ll naturally skirt them. More than just our orbs are involved in seeing.

    Perhaps that mysterious ‘more’ is what gets developed & expressed in the writing of those who do not see ‘normally.’

    In a vaguely related vein, I once sang in a band with a sax player who worked as a caregiver for the blind. I learned of this & began extolling the magical wonderfulness of our sight-deprived brothers & sisters, & this guy stopped me in mid-oration.

    “Hey, hey–blind people can be big A-holes just like anybody else! People always make ’em into saints & they’re NOT. They’re just regular people…”

    I’m glad he got me off that jag. It IS easy to project saintly qualities onto the disabled, when, in fact, you should get to know them first, just as you would any other person. I’ve since learned the sax player was, indeed, correct.

    (How can anyone possibly compare Borges & Saki? They’re not in the same universe, even. Oh well. To each their own elbow…)

    L&K, MaryB

  4. Michael Washburn says:

    You misunderstand, Mary. I gave two sequences of three writers. I was comparing James Thurber with Saki, Jorge Luis Borges with Franz Kafka, and Wyndham Lewis with Ezra Pound.

    • mary brady says:

      OK. I still think Borges is better than Franz Kafka–& all the other writers you noted, whether you considered them good or bad. But, as I say, that is just my elbow.

      Borges is my favorite writer (even though he became addled in his old age & supported fascist-types). I wrote my senior thesis on him in order to graduate from UC Berkeley many, many, many years ago. The earth’s crust was still cooling.

      I read every book I could find about him & his writing & it deepened my appreciation of him immensely–all the Kabbalah symbolism, etc. My inventive plagiarism of these books earned me a bright, shiny ‘A’ on my paper.

      Standards weren’t too high back then, though. I got a philosophy paper back (on Kirkegaard) with no marks on it at all except this: “I didn’t understand this. A-.” I have always wondered what the minus was for–penmanship? It was typed. I just don’t know…

      L&K, MaryB

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