Without leaving the house I know the whole universe.
– Lao Tzu
I discovered the secret of the sea in meditation upon the dew drop.
– Kahlil Gibran
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,
And the pismire [the ant] is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren . . .
– Carl Sandburg, in Leaves of Grass
These writers all share something in common: a belief in the amazing power of commonplace details to hold greatness. Or as American poet (and doctor of medicine) William Carlos Williams said, “Write what’s in front of your nose.”
Williams is famous for the line, “No ideas but in things.” His work touches on Zen-like notions that the “ordinary” is the same as beauty or enlightenment. Here’s a short, elegant poem by William Carlos Williams:
0 lovely apple!
beautifully and completely
hardly a contour marred–
perhaps a little
shrivelled at the top but that
in every detail! 0 lovely
apple! what a
deep and suffusing brown
unspoiled surface! No one
has moved you
since I placed you on the porch
rail a month ago
No one. No one!
Williams takes a common image – an apple – but with a twist. The poem celebrates the apple’s rottenness. But then Williams moves from the thing into the idea, some deeper questions of blemishes or beauty perceived.
Details, details, details! These are the elements that bring out the uniqueness in the everyday, the quirky in the commonplace. The idea in the thing.