February: What You See is What You Get

Inspired by a call for poems for a themed issue, this month I’m exploring the phrase, “what you see is what you get.” I’m collecting poems, reflecting on the many possible meanings of the phrase, finding one (or a few) I like, and writing poems about them.

update: I submitted 3 poems for this issue, and one was accepted, “There is a limit.” I had written this poem several years ago.


What You See Is What You Get: some meanings

  • WYSIWYG, a computer term indicating that what is on the screen looks like what will be on the page
  • no hidden agenda or meaning, no extra fees or frills, bells of whistles
  • all on the surface
  • all that there is
  • real
  • Flip Wilson catch phrase for his late 60s/70s character, Geraldine
  • the power of vision/a glance to own what it sees (get = have, own, control, receive as yours)
  • as is
  • what you see is what you don’t get: Groundhog Day
  • primacy of vision: your access to the world is through vision; what you see is what (how) you understand/comprehend/know
  • receive a gift of eyes: eyeballs on a platter (St. Lucia), painted eyes in a locket (18th century lovers exchange portraits of their eyes)
  • what you see is not one look/glance, but an accumulation of looks, habits, patterns, maps/scapes that the brain relies on
  • what you see is what you get = what you see is not what you get, or what is real is not seen, but sensed in other ways, like air and wind. You can’t see wind or air, but you know it’s there
  • ignoring of the process, and the naive belief that “things just happen”
  • people invest an uncritical faith (I’m resisting the impulse to write “blind faith” here) and superficial hope in the belief that what we see is what is there, and that what we see is what is real. This belief provides comfort, makes it easier, enables them to not have to question or challenge, just accept.
  • WYSIWYG as whizzy wig — whizz or wig or whizzing wigs or wizzes who wear wigs
  • “as is” in terms of metaphor — I think I was thinking about the “as” or “as in this or that…” — and how what you see is what you get is the opposite of metaphor, the what that you see is what it is and nothing else, not almost or approximate. 
  • what you see = your perspective, how you perceive/interpret/understand the world is how it is (or, more precisely how it seems/appears) to you. I was thinking particularly about my struggles to see/recognize other people’s faces and how I imagine others see me as rude or distant or unfriendly because of it. But, do they, or is that how I see myself?

definitions of Get from OED

  • to obtain, procure for oneself, for others
  • to acquire or receive
  • to bring in, gather, secure
  • to catch
  • to fetch, to go for and bring back
  • to capture, gain possession
  • of a natural force, a predator: to obtain as a victim; to consume, destroy, or defeat
  • get even
  • to concern, worry, or annoy (what gets me)
  • to arouse deep emotions in (gets me every time)
  • to learn, ascertain
  • to understand
  • to receive, meet with, or suffer
  • to grasp or grab; to gain a hold of
  • to come to have (a notion)
  • to catch or contract (an illness)
  • to get in touch with
  • to obtain an audible signal from, to pick up (radio or tv transmission)
  • to respond to, to answer
  • a getaway
  • to reach or attain an end aimed for, a condition towards which progress has been made
  • to incur or suffer a specified injury to
  • to compel
  • to come to do something, secure an opportunity
  • to cause
  • to succeed in making
  • to get a room (read the room, scene gist?)
  • get on board
  • get ahead, get along
  • get a room
  • get along with
  • get around
  • get away with
  • get rid of, shake off
  • to get by

on WYSIWYG: everything about how words or images look online involves a ton of behind-the-scenes brackets and semi-colons and classes and ids (and more). I find a lot of value in understanding, or at least being familiar with, how this works. And, I find a lot of danger in believing that all of what appears on a screen just is the way it is, almost by magic.

on seeing: This ignoring of the process, and the naive belief that “things just happen,” reminds me of how many (most?) people believe vision works: you see what’s there with your eyes. They don’t think about the complex processes of vision, from cornea to retina to visual cortex, and how the brain, to make things easier and/or efficient, or because it has limited data, distorts or alters or guesses. When we see, we are not seeing the world as it is, but how our brains have figured it out.

definition of whizz:

  1. An act, or the action, of whizzing; a sibilant sound somewhat less shrill than a hiss, and having a trace of musical tone like a buzz; a swift movement producing such a sound.
  2. The practice of picking pockets (chiefly in  on the whizz); a pickpocket. slang
  3. intransitive. To make a sound as of a body rushing through the air (see whizz n.1); (of trees) to rustle; (of a burning or hot object) to hiss, sizzle.
  4. To move swiftly with or as with such a sound.
  5.   intransitive. To urinate. slang. (as in, the whizz palace)

Ikea’s As-Is Department: The As-Is section is where you can view the selection of floor samples, discontinued pieces, and customer returns at a reduced price. IKEA has a certain amount of merchandise throughout the year that we retire, which ensures that we keep our selection of products up-to-date. That merchandise can end up in As-Is along with seasonal products that are left over after summer or after the winter holidays (source).

What You See Is What You Get: As-is, the Mannequins

After spending a week thinking through various definitions of WYSIWYG, I landed on the as-is and the mannequins. For a few years now, I’ve been wanting to write about the Minnesota State Fair mannequins. I wondered if it was too much of a stretch to imagine these mannequins fitting with the theme of what you see is what you get, but I went for it anyway.

There are many reasons to visit the state fair — the oversized vegetables, the political crop art, the birds’ bobbing heads — but what I look forward to most are the mannequins. Partly their creepy, slightly off expressions, but mostly the fact that they still, improbably, exist. They haven’t been replaced with newer models, smooth, slick, hairless, nipple-less sculptures. They exist, as is, terrible wigs and all. Dead eyes, or eyes that once held a spark before the paint wore off. Almost human, but not quite. They have not been replaced. And, not only that, but they are adorned with homemade hats and scarves and sweaters and impossibly ugly dresses.

unpublished notes
Tammy Faye Eyes and Cracked Nose

And here’s part of the final draft:

Praise Improbable Things

the Creative Activities Building, Minnesota State Fair

At the far edge of the fair in a red brick building 
squeezed into a big glass case 
the women remain. Surrounded
by a mess of textiles and techniques and clothed in
crocheted hats knit sweaters,
they preside over an abundance that overwhelms — 
art so useful it’s useless 
to capitalism: too sturdy and stale. 

to memorize: Hum
for my desk: Praises / Lucille Clifton