By Kirk Barbera (& Friend)
As a young boy, I vividly recall being captivated by the Magic Eye craze of the 1990s. My initial encounter with a Magic Eye image took place in my dentist's waiting room. Standing before the image with my father, we resembled eager disciples, anticipating a profound message from above. "Got it! Do you see it?" my father exclaimed. "It's an airplane soaring over a city." Regrettably, I couldn't perceive it at first glance. To assist me, my father instructed me to place my face close to the image and gradually step backward while adjusting the focus of my eyes. After several exasperating attempts, a magical moment ensued. The three-dimensional image materialized right before my eyes, emerging from the seemingly chaotic haze of random patterns.
Now, more than three decades later, I have rediscovered these captivating images known as Autostereograms. To me, the revelation of the concealed image amidst the bewildering and seemingly meaningless repetition of patterned visuals parallels the experience of reading a poem. Initially, a poem may appear as a jumble of disjointed sounds and words devoid of significance. However, with time and repeated readings, it unravels its hidden meaning, much like a secret waiting to be unveiled. As Robert Frost aptly described it, the process of understanding a poem is akin to a "piece of ice on a hot stove, the meaning must ride on its own melting."
Like with most poets, his meaning is not immediately obvious, or even direct. Great poems derive their meaning inside of the reader’s mind. It is what a reader brings to it, along with the totality of a poem that is most relevant. Autostereograms utilize a physiological fact about how our eyes operate in conjunction with the neurology of our brains. This is an automatic process.
Our eyes possess remarkable capabilities that allow us to perceive depth and the world in three dimensions. Due to their unique positions and perspectives, each eye captures a slightly different image of our surroundings. These distinct images are then transmitted to the brain for processing. In a process known as binocular vision, the brain merges these separate images into a unified perception of depth and spatial relationships.
Autostereograms leverage the synergy between our eyes and brains. These images utilize intricately designed patterns on their surface, which purposefully exploit our binocular vision. By arranging these patterns in a particular way, autostereograms conceal a hidden three-dimensional image within the apparent chaos. To reveal this concealed image, our eyes must adjust their focus by either diverging or converging while examining different points within the autostereogram.
As our gaze shifts and aligns with specific regions of the autostereogram, each eye obtains a slightly different perspective of the pattern. These distinct viewpoints provide the brain with essential information to construct the three-dimensional image. Subsequently, the brain processes and combines the inputs from both eyes, integrating the subtle disparities to generate a perception of depth. Through this intricate coordination between our eyes and brain, the concealed image within the autostereogram is unveiled, transforming a seemingly flat surface into a vivid and immersive three-dimensional experience.
In essence, autostereograms play with the way our eyes deliver separate images to the brain, exploiting the brain's ability to merge these images into a coherent whole. By manipulating our binocular vision, autostereograms offer a unique and captivating visual illusion, showcasing the intricate relationship between our eyes and our brain in perceiving depth and spatial dimensions.
In an episode of Seinfeld, Elaine's boss becomes fixated on a Magic Eye image that everyone else can see except him. This situation is quite common, as many individuals find it difficult or even impossible to unveil the hidden three-dimensional image. However, there are techniques that can assist in this process.
One effective technique for revealing the 3D image in an autostereogram involves "diverging" or "crossing" one's eyes, which was mentioned above. To accomplish this, begin by focusing your gaze beyond the autostereogram, allowing your eyes to relax and slightly diverge or cross. While maintaining this relaxed and unfocused gaze, gradually bring the autostereogram into your central vision. With patience and practice, you will notice the hidden 3D image starting to emerge, appearing to float above the patterned background. By consciously manipulating the positioning of your eyes and adjusting the convergence point, you can unlock the depth and visual richness concealed within the autostereogram.
Try it with this image:
Do you see it? If you don’t and would like to know what the image is, scroll to the bottom and I have revealed it there.
Oliver Wendall Holmes Sr said this about the experience: “The shutting out of surrounding objects, and the concentration of the whole attention, which is a consequence of this, produce a dreamlike exaltation of the faculties, a kind of clairvoyance, in which we seem to leave the body behind us and sail away into one strange scene after another, like disembodied spirits.”
Autostereograms provide a unique visual experience, but a similar sense of discovery and depth can be found in the realm of poetry. Just as autostereograms require the viewer to shift their focus and perception, poetry demands active engagement from the reader in order to unravel its hidden layers and meanings.
Autostereograms exploit an automatic neurological process that relies on one's perceptual abilities. However, individuals with severe eye damage or blindness are unable to participate in this activity. Poetry, on the other hand, is accessible to anyone with a mind and the use of a language. While autostereograms can reveal enjoyable images, poetry has the power to elevate any imaginable experience and even those beyond imagination through a deliberate process of seeking meaning.
Meaning refers to what is conveyed by words. It is the essence of importance, the revelation that occurs. It signifies what a word or statement represents and reflects the writer's intended expression. Consider the Old English word "maenan" as an example. Its meaning is "to express.” Try to find meaning in this Old English passage:
"Sōna wæs æfter þǣm mǣre mǣnan scēawere
under heofenes hrōfe hildesceorpum."
(Translation: "Soon after, the renowned one, the revealer of meanings,
beneath heaven's roof, adorned with battle-gear.")
In this passage, "mǣnan" is used as "revealer of meanings," emphasizing someone who can interpret or explain the significance of events or symbols. This is the etymology of our word for “meaning.” It comes from the Saxon poem Beowulf (10th or 11th century).
If you carefully read the passage, you most likely noticed certain word patterns but struggled to decipher the intended meaning. Over time, words like "meaning" have developed and acquired their current definitions and common usage. Unveiling meaning is akin to a revelation. When someone effectively conveys meaning, they embody the role of a "Revealer of Meanings," speaking truth from the heavens. Images of figures such as Moses, Jesus, and Prometheus may come to mind, as they are recognized as revealers of meanings.
In Percy Shelley's "Defence of Poetry," he proclaimed that poets were akin to prophets. Freud also acknowledged the power of poets to illuminate the meaning behind our inner lives and the world we inhabit.
Poetry stands as the stronghold of human truth, specifically truth concerning humanity and the human experience. However, unearthing this truth necessitates training, patience, and a genuine desire to excavate meaning from what initially appears devoid of significance.
Here is a short poem by William Wordsworth (1770-1850). At first glance, its meaning may be elusive. But upon putting your face closer to the image, or, re-reading the poem aloud a few times, the meaning that Wordsworth is conveying suddenly jumps out at you. Likely, this will be accompanied with a strong emotion.
Old Man Travelling: Animal Tranquility and Decay,
By William Wordsworth
The little hedge-row birds,
That peck along the road, regard him not.
He travels on, and in his face, his step,
His gait, is one expression; every limb,
His look and bending figure, all bespeak
A man who does not move with pain, but moves
With thought—He is insensibly subdued
To settled quiet: he is one by whom
All effort seems forgotten, one to whom
Long patience has such mild composure given,
That patience now doth seem a thing, of which
He hath no need. He is by nature led
To peace so perfect, that the young behold
With envy, what the old man hardly feels.
—I asked him whither he was bound, and what
The object of his journey; he replied
“Sir! I am going many miles to take
“A last leave of my son, a mariner,
“Who from a sea-fight has been brought to
“And there is dying in an hospital.”
At first, you may see a jumble of words and look confusedly at them as you try to configure a story or image. Read it again and a sketch appears, one describing an old man walking down a road, where little birds peck beside him and are not scared off by his presence; but does it have any meaning? He walks almost agonizingly slow, though any watchers may see him walking with pain and a “settled quiet.” He does not appear to be in a rush. Younger people may even look on him with envy as he has attained a level of patience that eludes the youthful. But wait, what do we discover at the end? He has a deadline, literally. There is an urgent purpose he has in his movement. Where does that urgency reside, as it does not bubble to the surface? What might he be feeling inside, though he does not act frantically as a younger man might?
This seemingly simple sketch holds a wealth of meaning beyond its surface-level depiction. Initially, we may only perceive birds, a road, an elderly man, and onlookers, but the author unveils a profound narrative that surpasses the limitations of a mere rough sketch or photograph. It delves into the complex emotional journey experienced by this man as he endeavors to reach his dying son, injured in a distant battle. This underlying urgency casts a new light on the initial picture. Why does he not opt for a stagecoach? What does his tranquil appearance amidst the knowledge of his son's impending death say about his character? While I could share my interpretation, I encourage you to explore your own.
When it comes to autostereograms, the elation felt upon finally uncovering the hidden image is certainly gratifying. However, it pales in comparison to the vastness of poetry. Poetry is akin to the sun, radiating warmth and brilliance, and even more, encompassing all the stars in the heavens. Its capacity to demonstrate the heights and depths of human experience knows no bounds. While the struggle to perceive a Magic Eye image can be both frustrating and eventually rewarding, the challenges presented by poetry offer a profound training ground for consciousness, shaping and enabling the essence of life and values. As William Butler yeats beautifully expressed, "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry."
This quarrel with ourselves can be our internal desire to become better humans. I say “can be” since this is an optional path that most do not choose to take. The English Romantic poets became obsessed with two particular figures: The hermit & The Wandering Peddler. These are men who have chosen to abscond from human society. They tend to stagnate. Sometimes there can be grand truths that they have for us, since they are not burdened with the pressures of society, but there is also a way in which they may stop pursuing all values. Here is a brief sketch by William Wordsworth, from his narrative poem “Peter Bell,” about a peddler who undergoes an internal transformation due to encounters with nature. This is before this transformation:
He had a dark and sidelong walk,
And long and slouching was his stalk;
His garments, never on the ground,
Were made for wear, and not for show.
Of sackcloth was his kirtle brown;
His russet cloak, of homespun grey,
Was hound about him in the way
That hounds are tied up for the day.
He has a flaccid and distraught appearance. His walk is sidelong and he slouches as he “stalks.” He was a sackcloth. This disfigured character exists but does not love and value. He survives but is not fully alive.
Human beings have unfortunately disregarded the reading of poetry today, mistakenly believing that novels or cinema suffice. However, poetry offers a distinct linguistic experience that neither novels nor moving pictures can replicate. It is a process, a convergence of meaning shaped solely by the reader's imagination and creative faculties.
In the realm of prose fiction, two individuals can engage in a discourse and arrive at precisely the same meaning derived from a book—provided the book is well-written, of course. Once they have grasped this meaning or theme, they can relate it to their own personal experiences, a pivotal aspect of deriving value from all forms of art. Poetry, on the other hand, is different. The journey into poetry is an unparalleled one, more heavily reliant on your personal comprehension of words, phrases, images, metaphors, and the multifaceted use of language that you can discern and assimilate. As a result, it becomes uniquely yours. Rarely do two interpretations of a poem align. In fact, the potential for meaning and interpretation in poetry is boundless and inexhaustible.
A poem, like all art, takes you on a journey. It is a re-creation of reality, often with poetry, it is a re-creation of an experience. Take this poem by Tennyson:
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
You may read a prose-style encyclopedia description of an eagle and learn about their talons and their methods of hunting. But poetry gives you the experience of being an eagle, so much that it is possible to humans. In the above poem, try visualizing the eagle with crooked hands (but eagles don’t have hands do they?) What’s ringed with the azure world mean to you? What image do you see of the eagle in the first stanza?
With stanza two, for instance, I see the sea as a mighty king might watch from the top of his tower all his people lined up to pay homage to their king. I become this king. I enter his body and look down upon all the people. Or sometimes the sea is a wrinkled old face that I look down on. I become like the eagle watching from up high and then drop to the earth.
Poetry adds more than the imagery and metaphors of language, but the sound of language. Here when read aloud, the shift in meter of the last line, gives us the feeling of falling. Try it by reading it out loud.
The interpretation of poetry may appear subjective, much like all forms of art, but it is not entirely so. A good poem indeed carries meaning, but that meaning is constructed within the reader. Among all art forms, poetry places a significant reliance on the reader's role. In prose fiction, the writer strives to make each sentence as lucid as can be. However, in verse fiction, the focus shifts to the sounds, rhythms, and inherent meaning of language itself. Thus it becomes the reader’s responsible to work the poem. The meaning of a prose sentence, such as this one, can become indisputable. But like all experiential meaning in our lives, this is not the case with poetry.
The grand power of poetry is its interpretive power, by which I mean, not the power of drawing out in black and white an explanation of the mystery of the universe, but the power of so dealing with things as to awaken in us a wonderfully full, new and intimate sense of them.
Poetry, the earliest and most intense form of communication known to humankind, awakens experiences by carefully selecting, combining, shaping, and illuminating them through language. It encompasses the convergence of “blood, imagination, and intellect,” as Yeats put it.
In contrast, an autostereogram capitalizes on the intricate workings of our perceptual system, involving our eyes and brains. Although this automated process is complex and has been subject to much scientific inquiry, the inner workings of our conscious minds are infinitely more intricate. Poetry, unlike an autostereogram, is not an automatic process. It necessitates the active engagement of our intellectual faculties, surpassing the involvement of our eye "muscles." While Magic Eye images may offer temporary amusement, their novelty wears off quickly. Once we've encountered a few images, the exercise becomes repetitive and uninteresting. Poetry, however, remains boundless. It has been an avenue for expressing new emotions and experiences throughout millennia. It likely predates the emergence of prose, with our earliest utterances taking the form of poetic chants. Prose, with its logic and formalized rules, comes later; verse is foundational, embedded within our humanity.
To conclude, I present you with a final poem by William Wordsworth. It exemplifies the interplay between the mind, reality, and language. While the poem holds a surface-level meaning, as you immerse your mind in its entirety, a deeper and more profound significance will unveil itself..
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
BY WILLIAM WORDSWORTH
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
This is the image hidden in the autostereogram above: