‘To Look at Any Thing’ by John Moffitt is a 15-line poem written in free verse. The poem speaks of the importance of observation and its link to knowledge. Moffitt differentiates between seeing and really observing. For him, seeing is not enough to produce knowing. He posits that deep observation is the only way to really know something. It is almost as if we have to see beyond the label or name of a thing, beyond our social conditioning, to see that thing as it truly is. Therefore, for Moffitt, mystery surrounds us. Through attentiveness, we can see beyond the superficial and tap into a deeper reality.
Explore To Look at Any Thing
‘To Look at Any Thing’ by John Moffitt speaks of the importance of observation and attentiveness so that we can see beyond the superficial to appreciate a deeper reality.
In the poem, Moffitt posits that knowledge is gained through long observation. It is not enough just to see the thing. We must take it in completely, ‘[b]e the thing’. This is a reference to deep attentiveness. Therefore, glancing upon a thing is not good enough to know it. That requires being mindful of the thing, ruminating on it. Only through this attentiveness and rumination, will we get to truly know a thing.
You can read the full poem here.
‘To Look at Any Thing’ by John Moffitt deals with knowledge through observation. He points the reader towards a deep reality beyond the superficial. For instance, we can see a basic drawing of a tree and identify it as a tree. That is a superficial observation. However, we can go out into nature and observe a tree. We can see the twisted branches and the gnarled trunk.
Moreover, if we look close enough, we can see the details in every single leaf. This is seeing a deeper reality than a drawing affords. So, this is what Moffit means when writing ‘To Look at Any Thing’. We can identify an object by looking at it, but to really know that object, to see the deep reality, takes long observation.
For the detailed analysis, we will break the poem into five sections. Let us look at lines: 1-3, 4-7, 8-9, 10-12, and 13-15.
The first three lines of the poem introduce Moffitt’s subject matter. We can take a closer look here:
To look at any thing,
If you would know that thing,
You must look at it long:
From the first three lines, we understand that Moffitt posits an idea. He claims that to know a thing, we must look at it long. Moffitt highlights the importance of observation straight away here. Moreover, he links observation to knowledge. Therefore, to gain knowledge of a thing, we must observe that thing. And not just a cursory observation, but a long observation. The looker must take in the thing, study it, ruminate on it.
In the next lines, he gives an example of what he means. Let us observe these lines and take as long as we need.
To look at this green and say,
Be the thing you see:
Here, lines 4, 5, and 6 give an example to the reader. The poet wants us to know that taking a superficial look at a thing is not enough. In writing ‘I have seen spring in these woods’, Moffitt draws our attention to the lack of detail in the statement. So, it is a telling statement, without description. Therefore, the statement glosses over what was actually seen. The lack of detail means we do not get a full picture of the scene. So, from that description of observation, we do not gain knowledge of what spring was like in the woods. Although we have a superficial idea of what it is like, we do not get the deep knowledge. To get deep knowledge, experience deep reality, we must be the thing. But what does Moffitt mean by that? Let us move on and find out.
These two lines are heavy with imagery, as we can see:
You must be the dark snakes of
Stems and ferny plumes of leaves,
Now, let us take a moment to juxtapose these two lines with the example offered above. Instead of a telling statement, like the example above, the eighth and ninth lines are showing. Therefore, the imagery of these lines shows us what the woods are like. The ‘dark snakes of stems and ferny plumes of leave’ represent the woods in greater detail. Moffitt uses this clever comparison to get his point across. The imagery of these lines allows us to see the woods, gives us knowledge of them; whereas the above example told us about the woods, meaning we cannot get a detailed picture. Therefore, longer observation goes beyond normal perception.
So, this comparison helps Moffitt get his idea across. By showing what the woods are like through imagery, he implants a picture in our minds. Therefore, he shows us what it is like to ‘be’ those things. This is what he means. He wants observers to not only look at the thing, but to become the thing in their imagination. By imagining the stems snaking upwards, and seeing the ferny plumes, we become more knowledgeable about the intricacies of the woods.
The next lines call for even closer observation. Let us take a look:
You must enter in
As well as closer observation, these lines highlight the importance of attentiveness. So, we must recognize the small silences. This offers a deeper look at reality. Therefore, it is not only about the woods but the spaces within the woods. Taking Moffitt’s background into account, we can safely say he refers to mindfulness here. So, he wants the observer to be mindful of everything that makes up reality, including the small silences. Moreover, he wants the observer to be attentive to these. This allows the observer to take in the whole thing, gain knowledge of the thing being observed.
The last three lines reinforce the need for longer observation. Moffitt writes:
You must take your time
And touch the very peace
They issue from.
The second last line calls for concentration. Furthermore, it is a compounding of attentiveness. Think of it as zoning in on the small silences so completely that you feel the peace within them. Again, this links to mindfulness and Moffitt’s background. He wants to highlight that peace exists within things, and we will notice if we observe them for long enough. Moreover, this peace is a part of the deeper reality. So, through long observation, Moffitt wants us to become the thing we see, opening a deeper reality around us.
About John Moffit
John Moffit began studying Hindu religious philosophy seriously in 1932. He permanently joined the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York in 1939. In 1949, he became a monastic novice before becoming a monk in 1959. Moreover, Moffitt traveled widely in Europe and Southeast Asia, where he followed his Hindu faith. However, after 24 years as a practicing Hindu, Moffitt converted to Catholicism.
A prolific writer of poetry, he claimed to have written 300 poems in the first half of 1956. Edwin Arlington Robinson and Emily Dickinson influenced him early on, in style and subject matter (Moffitt & Jerome 1964, pp. 214-17*).
Yes, John Moffitt uses repetition in ‘To Look at Any Thing’. He uses the verb look three times in the poem. Also, he uses you must five times. This repetition emphasizes the point the poet wants to get across.
Hinduism is an Indian religion. It is the third-largest religion in the world. Globally, Hinduism has 1.2 billion followers. Hinduism embraces many religious ideas. Because of that, it is often referred to as a way of life. Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion, according to many scholars.
Mindfulness is about being in the moment, being fully present. Practitioners focus on being aware of what they are seeing and feeling in the moment. Therefore, mindfulness is about maintaining awareness of oneself and one’s surrounding environment.
If you liked this poem, you may also enjoy these two poems:
*Moffitt, John & Jerome, Judson 1964, ‘A Moffitt sampler’, The Antioch Review, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 213–222. Viewed 29 July 2021, <www.jstor.org/stable/4610598>.