Imaginative, not imaginary

I have been thinking about the place that a poem makes in the world, the place that a poem is in the world. My recent reading on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series (see the tail end of this previous post) has led me back to a few of his essays. He felt that good stories–whether fantasy, mythology, allegory, science fiction, or epic narrative–take the reader to threshold spaces that are imaginative, not imaginary.

I think that poetry offers what Plato calls psychagogia— “an enlargement of the soul” in C.S. Lewis’ definition, or see John Joseph Jasso’s dissertation chronicling it as “the idea that rhetoric can lead souls to their own betterment; that is, guide them in an ascent along a metaphysical hierarchy through beauty, goodness, and truth to a fuller participation in being.” Poetry provides such enlargement by permitting the reader to imaginatively undergo transformation via images and places the poem offers, to experience the turn in the poem’s rhetoric, to feel ‘along with’ the poem’s nature. The poem is a threshold at which the reader stands and makes the choice of whether or not to enter.

Granted, that seems a rather allegorical way to think of poetry, but not, I think, an unwarranted perspective.

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Lewis, by training a medievalist, believed that we need to read “the canon” or, essentially, any and all great literature of the past, in order to have “something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.” (This is from his 1939 sermon “Learning in War-Time.”) I love reading modern and contemporary literature; but I agree with him that through reading the work of the past, we cross a threshold into a new (to us) perspective. I do not know what the past knows; I have to explore, read carefully, infer, and take nothing for granted. I must take the role of observer before donning the garb of critic. For me, it’s as important to approach literature with beginner’s mind as it is to approach the garden with beginner’s mind. Perhaps this is one reason I have always enjoyed reading history: The past is a place I do not know well and therefore have to find a way to enter into anew.

Lewis continues by noting that the person who reads literature of the past “has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” Given the times in which we live and the nonsense pouring from the microphones of our age (which are legion), it takes a good deal of sorting to find the beautiful and the good–which do exist–amid the resounding chaos. I do not recommend a full retreat into reading Beowulf, the Illiad, or Tolstoy, but tempering my intake of current media with poems and stories reminds me that I ought to question my basic assumptions and the basic assumptions and perspectives of others, including people who lived long ago in eras and cultures about which I know very little.

A good read inclines me toward the imaginative. Whatever arts it may take to get me there, past the imaginary and into imagination, whatever aesthetic form it takes, I am grateful.

baynesNarniaPauline Baynes’ illustration: Narnia’s lamppost in snow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Smalls

This week in the blog tour, both Kelli Russell Agodon and Lesley Wheeler (poets) blogged about smallness, small things, smaller lives.

And a lovely (small) erasure poem by Dave Bonta got me thinking about ‘little things’:

in the night bog
I part with my road
curious about other things

I lack philosophy enough
to understand bread
or the question of touch                                            —Dave Bonta

~~                                             ~~                                                     ~~                                             ~~

iris reticulata

~

Just yesterday, these tiny iris reticulata bloomed along the woodlot’s edge. This evening’s forecast is for a nor’easter and up to 8 inches of snow. So long, for now, little irises. During the brief time I observed you, beauty entered my day.

~

Can we even understand such small and usual things as bread? As touch? As the winter’s blossoms? Could we entertain an aesthetics of small things?

Or do I lack the philosophy for that?

 

Begun in reverie

 

wooden fishing boats

Near Aviero, Portugal; photo: David Sloan

Today, I was thinking of Portugal. Nice memories. I went through my digital photographs, found this one, and fell into reverie. It is amazing how images enhance memory or enable us to embellish it. Sometimes, that is where a poem begins.

When my physical body walked upon this sand, beside this bay, the encounter was a mix of new–a place I’d never been before–and familiar or expected: smell of brine and fish, the feel of breezes in my hair and on my skin, of damp sand underfoot. I recall my delight at seeing the vividly-painted wooden boats, though I had certainly seen paintings and photographs of similar fishing crafts, so their appearance was not surprising. That’s because I have a friend who is an expert in wooden boat-making, Simon Watts; he has been around the world examining wooden boats and had told us to watch for these along the coast of Portugal. Simon is a teller of stories, as is his sister Marjorie Watts. So many hours Simon has regaled us with tales of the writing life, the sailing life, the traveling life, the woodworking life, his forays in Portugal…

Back to Portugal. I think of a most pleasant week there, not so long ago. Mind hums with possibilities. With images. With words.

~

This post is an effort to illustrate how image, memory, sensory experience, stories, human connections, and activities bounce around the neurological synapses while a person experiences reverie.

It isn’t reverie, of course, because I am writing; true reverie seldom includes much activity. Let me suggest the paragraphs and picture are somehow analogous to the reverie process, which often leads to imagination.

~

Next stop: Imagination! train 1And perhaps even a draft for a poem.

 

Fully human

A student who grew up in Viet Nam and arrived in the USA just two years ago scheduled an appointment with me for assistance in revising her final paper for Philosophy.

My job is to help her with her articles, subject-verb agreement, verb tense, and plural forms and uses, and when to use a capital letter for proper nouns. I also assist students like her with claims, thesis statements, and rhetorical structure–but I am not a “content tutor.” Of course, I often understand the content and find it interesting to observe how young people interpret, say, literature or philosophy.

In this case, Western philosophy, in English, as interpreted by a person raised in a culture quite different from the Western university system norm.

Philosophy 109 challenges many native-born and US-educated freshman students; taking this course as an English-learner with very little “Western” experience must be ridiculously difficult. So I first assessed how the course had been going for her, and she said, “So-so.” What had been most difficult? Note-taking, she said. With the texts she could take her time, translate, and eventually tease out the ideas; but class lectures were really hard. In addition, she struggled with the concept of opposition and rebuttal as structured in the philosophical argument.

 

Her assigned argument for the term paper was: “The arts, sciences, and philosophy are valuable because they help us to become fully human.”

The paper began with her assertion that the arts make us more fully human because they are beautiful to behold and inspire in us joy and appreciation.

“Is the best art beautiful?” I asked. She said yes, and I asked her, “Is it only art’s beauty that makes us human and good?”

“Not only,” she said, after a moment of hesitation. “Sometimes–sad is beauty. Sad is not good, but sad also makes us human.” She hesitated again and then went on: “I think good art, and good science, has both sides. I think this but it isn’t in my paper. Should I put it in my argument?” We agreed to work on a sentence or two that might express her interpretation more completely while heeding the general conventions of Introduction to Western Philosophy.

Sometimes, syntax is content.*

Without exception (well, almost), I learn so much from student interpretations of ancient concepts. Rather than rolling my eyes and scoffing at how little they know, I’m searching their perspectives for what it is I ought to know about them and their experiences. The stance of most older authorities is that young people must integrate themselves into our norms and conventions; but we will age out of our power base, at which point we’d be better off recognizing their norms and points of view and exercising our neurons by learning how to adapt to the next set of conventions.

Philosophy and the arts will stay around. I have no doubts about that. The ways in which human beings interpret them may change; all to the good–stasis would destroy philosophy and art, thus keeping us from our potential to be fully human.

~

 

*[You might want to read Sister Miriam Joseph’s classic text, The Trivium, for a deeper explanation of how to approach ‘mastery’ of the liberal arts and learning.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transitions & ambition

letter I
have maintained this blog pretty regularly, for years now, writing about books and poems and gardens and teaching, examining the concept of consciousness and trying to plumb–from a novice’s perspective–the brain’s wiring and functions. I suppose I am seeking a kind of “interdisciplinary” approach in these posts and in life: a philosophy of values that considers the arts, aesthetics, evolution, biology, social structures, neurology, consciousness, physics, etymology, pedagogy, ecology, and compassion (have I forgotten anything?) in a distinct but expansive method of living in which I can situate myself and which might guide my behavior as I make my life-long way through the world. If, by some chance, my words influence a reader–so much the better; this is, after all, a public space (WordPress.com).

Like many people who use social media platforms for their writing, though, I have a mixed view of its suitability as a medium and of its perceived necessity for contemporary writers. My purpose, originally, was to practice writing prose and to promote the arts and the natural environment as necessary complements to and instruction for the development of empathy (compassion) and metacognition in human beings.

The blog has been reasonably suitable for practice; it gets me writing what is basically a brief essay on a more-or-less weekly basis. It has several thousand “followers,” but only a handful of readers. [I can discern this through the statistics page on WordPress, though I don’t check often.] In general, I use this platform mostly as a way of “seeing what I think,” and it serves that purpose, too.

IMG_0127

I have come to some conclusions about the problem of consciousness (and about whether it actually is a problem) through the reading and experiences of the past ten years or so. Those conclusions are, however, private ones. While the process of discovery and inquisitiveness works in a public forum, the takeaway remains, for this blogger, a thing carried within.

But.

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But other blogger-writers have influenced my thinking about what a public forum such as blogging or Facebook can do for the writing process. Dave Bonta and Luisa Igloria, as well as Michael Czarnecki and Lou Faber–among others–promote by example the option, and value, of publishing new or unedited, unfinished, partially-revised work. Granted, not all of them have thousands of readers who weigh in on criticism or encouragement; but the very process of making public the work-in-progress seems to me to be courageous. This may be because I am a wimp, or it may be because the social aspects of the vaunted “po-biz” have dampened my willingness to show a kind of transparency in my writing methods.

I am not on the tenure track and will not be teaching in an MFA program, however, so why would it matter?

Therefore: be prepared, oh limited but blesséd audience. I may begin to foist upon you the recent sad, sad poems I’ve been writing–in draft form. Or I may begin to reveal the poems from my seven-years’-unpublished manuscript online. Or I may, like Luisa and Michael, begin to blog “a poem a day” (unlikely, but…). It seems to me that a transition is in order here. And that stands as my writing ambition for the moment, as autumn makes its way toward the solstice and I face another stack of student essays to grade.

 

 

 

 

The color orange

bouquet

Late summer bouquet five days past its first blush…

~
The crickets are raising their “voices” each night; the darkness lasts a little longer, and the color orange emerges from the green of midsummer to remind us of all that is beautiful in the world, despite __________________________ [insert your list of unpleasant, tragic, disheartening things].

Here is my encomium to the Mexican sunflower, tithonia rotundifolia, a favorite of bees and monarch butterflies and also a favorite of my daughter’s, so it has special aesthetic-emotional appeal for me. The poem I’d like to write to the sunflower has not yet materialized, so praise in prose will have to do for now.

mexican sunflower, bee by Ann E Michael

Autumn approaches. I like autumn, though some of my dear ones do not–but one thing universally salvages the early weeks of the season, no matter how a person feels about the encroaching cooler weather: orange. Even people who don’t care for the color in clothing or decor admit that, in nature, the color orange attracts the eye, enlivens a scene, brightens the dullest corner.

Nasturtiums, zinnias, the last hurrah of daylilies, butterflyweed, and early-turning foliage such as sumac and sassafras sport the color well. There are also pumpkins and squashes warming up fields; and in some areas, there are butterflies wearing the hue: monarchs, viceroys, fritillaries.

But nothing delights in a bright red-orange so well as the Mexican sunflower, which evokes the warm climate of its designation and likely origin (I haven’t done a great deal of research on the plant. I know that tithonia diversifolia is native to the region of Central Mexico and am merely guessing that the rotundifolia variety has its roots there, too–excuse the pun).

monarch.ann e michael

It sports well with one of its showiest pollinators, the gorgeous, orange, monarch butterfly.

Tithonia likes full sun and does not mind a bit of drought–all reasons it managed well in Mexico. It’s also ridiculously happy in the American Northeast, at least in the Mid-Atlantic region where I garden. The plants grow 6-9 feet tall and are veritable fountains of pleasing, brilliant points in the late-summer garden. They attract bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and small songbirds and have few pests. Deer dislike their “hairy” leaves, and slugs and beetles seem also unimpressed with their food qualities.

Or perhaps the “pests” appreciate the blooms’ aesthetic value, as I do. [Okay, too much anthropomorphism there, I admit.] tithonia.2sm

Furthermore, as long as I get out to the garden and dead-head the plants regularly, they bloom right up until the first hard frost.

And they cut well for bouquets (see the not-excellent photo above).

When there is so much sorrow going on in the world, it may seem odd that a flowering plant can offer respite–a moment or two of awe, of joy, the discovery of a bumblebee with its legs pollen-yellow or a monarch’s slim proboscis coiled just above brilliantly golden stamens amid a red-hot orange daisy-shaped blossom…and maybe, above, an autumn-blue sky.

Not art, but nature. Both valuable to human creatures.

 

Backstory, continued

What brought the idea of backstory to mind was a poem of mine that recently appeared in Peacock Journal’s  print anthology. The poem appeared last year in the journal’s online site. (See: “Imagined Painting of Mary Magdalene Bathing.”)

A friend read the piece and responded to the poem by saying, “This is a beautiful poem. It’s so visual–also, different the second time you read it. And I know how interested you’ve always been in saints and iconography and art, but where did you come up with the idea of imagined paintings? What’s that about?”

This is the best kind of question, as far as I’m concerned. It is a question about ideas, not inspiration or meaning or even craft–though I love questions about craft. It does beg the writer to reveal, however, a bit of the story-behind-the-story/poem/narrative, etc.

“Backstory” may seem self-explanatory. It’s a term used more frequently in drama, particularly screenwriting. Poetry critics are less inclined to employ the concept because–see last post–it is too easy to fall into explaining the poem, which is generally considered a no-no. My friend, however, is a reader and not a poetry critic. I felt free, therefore, to address the question on a personal level.

As my good friend knows, I have been intrigued since adolescence by the art and iconography, the symbolism and the stories of the saints, despite my Protestant upbringing. I love art, aesthetics, and the divinely natural (empirical, phenomenal) World and feel an ambiguous but compelling relationship with myth, religion, history and a culture I cannot escape. And I have imagination.

I began writing about a saints in less-than saintly pursuits. The idea interested me. Surely the saints could be imagined as real human beings, not only as intercessionaries between the human realm and Heaven. I wrote about St. Sebastian purchasing a tunic, Saint Agnes braiding her mother’s hair, and St. Anthony fetching a pail of water. Saints as human beings (rather than as symbols, icons, and religious items) led me to the depictions of saints in art as other-worldly, pure, suffering, or in all ways saintly; and I entertained thoughts of paintings I had never seen but would like to see–theoretically-possible paintings. In the case of St. Mary Magdalene bathing–would Da Vinci have painted it? Rubens? I can only imagine. The poems are a kind of ekphrasis.

I wanted to be a painter when I was a child. This imagining may be as close as I ever get to realizing my youthful ideals.

~

There is not much more backstory than that. None of it leads to meaning or interpretation, although the story above may cement some allusion or confirm referents in the reader’s mind. I hope, however, that the backstory here might interest one or two readers enough that they pick up a book on Renaissance or medieval art, on hagiography or history. Or perhaps someone will go to Amazon.com and purchase the anthology at the link above.

Thank you, friends in literature and imagination.