The World in a Grain of Sand

As always, the Mass Poetry Festival was awesome. The sun shone on the small press fair and the Poetry Circus, the readers were in good voice, and it was fabulous catching up with friends. I particularly enjoyed the “embodied creativity” yoga & writing workshop and the poets who read their works written in Emily Dickinson’s bedroom. My thanks and compliments to everyone involved in carrying out the festival: the hard-working staff at MassPoetry, PEM, and the scores of volunteers.

As part of the festival, I had the pleasure of leading another workshop at the Peabody Essex Museum on connecting poetry to visual art, this time focusing on the idea of incorporating scale. I had a group of about 30 people and loved getting to introduce them to the Art & Nature Center’s current show, Sizing it Up: Scale in Nature and Art.


Led to Your True Path, Joel Robison, 2014. Part of the Sizing it Up exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum

We started by defining ‘scale’ for the purposes of the workshop:

  • Visual (comparison to human scale)
  • Extra-visual (too extremely small or large for human perception)
  • Physical (in relation to your body)
  • Constructed (in relationship to your page or canvas)

To get our brains in gear, we did a ‘constructed scale’ poetry writing exercise, where people picked a piece of paper that was not their usual notebook size (register tape, index cards, post-it notes) and drafted a poem where the lines fit the size of the paper exactly, no line breaks too short or too long for the physical space.

Then we went into the gallery to read a few poems that use scale, next to visual art works that evoked the same feeling.

Searching for Goldilocks, by Angela Palmer, is an artwork that depicts all the exoplanets (planets found outside our solar system) including ones in the ‘Goldilocks zone’ that might contain recognizable life like our own Earth. (You can read more about planets in the Goldilocks zone here) Next to Searching for Goldilocks, we read “Kepler 62-F” by xYz, which is the pen name of Joanna Tilsley.

xYz kepler62F

Metropolis, by Vaughn Bell, is an artwork that allows up to four people to get their faces at forest floor level by stepping under and up into a series of connected terrariums featuring local plantlife.


Workshop participants experiencing Metropolis.

Next to Metropolis, we read “The Scale of Things,” by Margaret Tait (originally published in The Hen and the Bees, 1960)

The Scale of Things
by Margaret Tait

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.

Then I set the workshop participants free to spend about 20 minutes in the gallery brainstorming in front of one or more pieces of scale-related art, after which we shared our reactions and results. It was especially neat to hear which artworks drew people in, and how many participants felt the same dislocation as Alice or Gulliver, feeling themselves suddenly much larger or smaller than ever before. Several people also headed back into the gallery to spend more time with the art after the workshop, which felt like success to me.

You can download the handouts (writing exercise directions, poems, and more) here: The World in a Grain of Sand handout. I highly recommend a visit to the museum while you’re at it!

Finally, here are a few cool scale-related links I used in my research for the program, if you’d like to explore more:

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