How art — especially literature and poetry most of all — can help us.

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WE make our world by what we choose to see.

I wrote that line years ago, and have copied it from notebook to notebook, waiting for the rest of the poem to arrive. But lately I’ve begun wondering if maybe it’s less a fragment of a future poem and more a manifesto.

At first glance, it might seem like an endorsement of confirmation bias, that all-too-human tendency to only value evidence that confirms our existing ideas and opinions.

Confirmation bias is most insidious as it relates to beliefs we’re not conscious of: We filter the world around us, selectively noticing, believing and remembering things that affirm our ideas, all the while unaware of the unconscious editing we’re doing moment by moment.

We make our world by what we choose to see.

The operative word is “choose.” We can actively cultivate — seek out, take in, consider — perspectives that complicate and expand our view and, thus, our world. Or not.

Remember Starbucks’ recent Race Together campaign? No matter how you felt about it, one thing it illustrated is just how fraught even suggesting a conversation about race can be.

The night the decision not to charge Officer Darryl Wilson in the death of Michael Brown was announced, I sat in my house and read the news, feeling powerless and angry and ashamed.

As we struggle — as a country, as individuals — to reckon with racial inequality, we must first be willing to see what needs to change around us and within us.

Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times
Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times

This is where art — especially literature and poetry — can help us.

Over the past year, I’ve returned again and again to one particular book of poems: “Citizen: An American Lyric.” The author, Claudia Rankine, writes in response to racism’s many forms, from the “wrongfully ordinary” beatings, deaths and imprisonment, to the physiological and psychological toll that casual racism exacts.

What makes “Citizen” transformative is that Rankine takes the reader inside the experience. As I read, I feel how “the wrong words enter your day like a bad egg in your mouth” and how, “That time and that time and that time the outside blistered the inside of you, words outmaneuvered years, had you in a chokehold, every part roughed up, the eyes dripping.”

Wash. poet laureate

Seattle-based Elizabeth Austen is Washington state’s poet laureate for 2014-16 and the author of “Every Dress a Decision.” The state’s poet laureate program is sponsored by Humanities Washington and ArtsWA.

• Watch her video series on the art of writing poetry:

wapoetlaureate.org/

• For a list of her upcoming readings and workshops: wapoetlaureate.org/events/

• To read her poetry: elizabethausten.wordpress.com/poems/

Rankine said in an interview with NPR that the book’s anecdotes reflect experiences of her own, and of her friends: “ … when racism surprisingly entered in when you were among friends or colleagues or just doing some ordinary thing in your day.”

We make our world by what we choose to see.

Poet Marie Howe defines poetry as “a cup of language to hold what can’t be said.” This is why poems are spoken at funerals and weddings, moments of heightened emotion, when we reach for language to carry us beyond the limits of ordinary speech to say the unsayable.

I believe poetry is also a bridge between solitudes. At its best, it transports us — through the nonlinear and irresistible persuasion of music and metaphor — into a state of receptive empathy, the closest thing we can get to truly understanding what it’s like to see the world as someone else does, to live inside another’s skin.

Poetry doesn’t substitute for relationships with actual people. But just as poem X might help me empathize with what it’s like to lose a spouse, poem Y might help me understand what a particular person of color (one writer) experiences that I, a particular white person (one reader), do not.

The late Lucille Clifton, Tim Seibles, Natasha Trethewey and Terrance Hayes are a few more poets, like Rankine, who have challenged and changed me, remaking my world by shifting what I see. You’ll find their poems online, at the library and in your local bookstore.

We make our world by what we choose to see.