Any exploration of how we look at (or see) the World should include a visit to the poetry of Wallace Stevens. For Stevens, a life well-lived is one in which there is a continual back-and-forth between the Imagination and the World (Reality). Thus: "Let the place of the solitaires/Be a place of perpetual undulation// . . . There must be no cessation/Of motion . . . And, most, of the motion of thought/And its restless iteration,//In the place of the solitaires,/Which is to be a place of perpetual undulation." (Wallace Stevens, "The Place of the Solitaires," from Harmonium.)
In his earlier poems, one gets the sense that Stevens believed that we are capable of creating imaginative structures that can transcend the everyday world. However, as he aged, I think that he began to take a humbler view of our role in this back-and-forth.
He still recognized the importance of Imagination -- after all, he kept on creating poems into his seventies -- but one senses a less imperious attitude toward the World. This softening is often very moving, particularly in the poems that he wrote in his last years. The following poem is the final poem in Stevens's final book, which was published when he was 75.
Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself
At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.
He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry, at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.
The sun was rising at six,
No longer a battered panache above snow . . .
It would have been outside.
It was not from the vast ventriloquism
Of sleep's faded papier-mache . . .
The sun was coming from outside.
That scrawny cry -- it was
A chorister whose c preceded the choir.
It was part of the colossal sun,
Surrounded by its choral rings,
Still far away. It was like
A new knowledge of reality.
Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (1954).
"It was like/A new knowledge of reality" is a lovely and wonderful (and humbling) acknowledgement to make at the end of one's life, isn't it? Especially when, like Stevens, you have devoted your life to extolling the primacy of the human Imagination. Notice the repeated use of "outside" when referring to things in the World: "a scrawny cry from outside . . . It would have been outside . . . The sun was coming from outside." The thing itself -- unlike ideas about the thing -- comes from outside and stands on its own.
A side-note: for further paeans to the sun, I recommend Philip Larkin's "Solar" ("suspended lion face") and Charles Madge's "Solar Creation" ("the sun, of whose terrain we creatures are"), as well as Stevens's own "The Brave Man" ("The sun, that brave man"), which have appeared here previously.
A statement by John Ruskin is perhaps pertinent: "The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion -- all in one." Modern Painters, Volume III, Part IV, Chapter XVI (1856).