Perhaps it was discovering Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition when we were just married, which marked the beginning of our life-long journeys to explore ways the senses are woven together. Poor and in graduate school, we had our priorities straight – buy music first, furniture follows.

nagelMussorgsky began his composition visually rather than with sound. A friend’s drawings and watercolors led him to compose the work we fell in love with. In this composition, Mussorgsky depicts a walk through an imaginary collection of art – using music to simulate walking and visual descriptions.

As working artists and colleagues, our creative energy today is given to exploring the complex relationships of sound and sight. We move from photographic image to poetry – from words into metaphorical images – and sounds of poetry read aloud. In exhibits of our combined works of poetry and image, our intention is to promote a conversation between the two, rather than one medium describing the other. Our hope is that this conversation leads viewers to enter their own conversations with what they see and hear.

Taste and smell have become non-essentials for survival in today’s world. Our primary senses are visual, auditory and tactile. Driving down the freeway demands vision and hearing. Braille depends on touch and ASL (American Sign Language) on vision.

Vision is the dominant sense for most people in our culture. Ask someone to spell “elephant” – then ask them how they did it. Visually dominant people usually “see” the word in their head. Auditory-dominant people hear the sounds. Imagine a theater in which a thick red curtain rises to reveal a symphony orchestra. Tactile folks will “feel” the curtain. The audience will weave their senses together in various ways as they experience the performance.

Cultivating the capacity to interweave our senses intrigues John Daido Loori, in his book Making Love with Light. He talks about seeing with the ears and hearing with the eyes. He describes the process as taking “off the blinders that limit” us in constructing our reality. It is a way of moving outside the box, awakening ourselves to the “sheer and wildness of things as they are” through words, images and poetry.

Our complex world challenges us to find creative solutions never imagined. Cultivating the capacity to see with the ears and hear with the eyes through art, music and poetry has practical value, in a culture which too often treats the arts as nonessential.

Beyond its usefulness in our chaotic world, crossover of the senses of sight and sound can be pure joy. Next time you settle in with a book that holds your attention, ask yourself what two-dimensional expressions of ink on white paper evoke within you. Walk around one of our beautiful lakes or a nature center trail. Experiment with the sounds of colored leaves, the smell of November’s soft rain. Hear the sight of water.

Norman Fischer, a writer and Zen teacher, describes metaphor as our sixth sense. Poetry sometimes is viewed as the art form to which writers resort when they are trying to convey something beyond words – using metaphor to evoke images that mingle the senses. Read some poetry, even if it is not something you usually do. You may discover yourself writing some poetry about experiences that move you when words fail.


Clem and Elizabeth Nagel will present the workshop “Living into Sight and Sound,” from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Nov. 14, at the Benedictine Center, a ministry of St. Paul’s Monastery in Maplewood. The Center is a resource that encourages the arts. Its setting in a natural area will be an inviting place to experiment with cultivating the capacity to see with our ears and hear with our eyes. Call 651.777.7251 for more details, or email benedictinecenter@stpaulmonastery.org.

Clem and Elizabeth Nagel are teaching artists at The Loft Literary Center. Among Clem's published poetry are two books, Prairie Ground Prairie Sound and Listen to the Silence: A Walk Though the Natural World. Elizabeth has just published a book of poetry, Waiting for the Heat to Pass. They can be reached at cnagel@cpinternet.com.

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