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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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.

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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.

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

 

Whittling

Recently, as I was on the road through the suburban edge of a small city, I noticed something unusual. Sitting on the grass, under a large pine tree, a child of about nine or ten was whittling. Absorbed in his task, he ignored the traffic going by; he had no cell phone or mobile device, no electronic game. He simply remained intent upon the knife and the stick in his hands, shaving off layers of wood.

Seeing him brought back memories of my own childhood. I loved to whittle. I had a Girl Scout pocket knife, and there were plenty of twigs littered around the yard, streets, and sidewalks where I lived. Whittling occupied minutes of boredom, when no friends were around to play with, when I did not feel like reading or had run out of books for the time being (we didn’t always get to the library soon enough for me!). On camping trips with the Scouts or with my family, I whittled for a sort of purpose: pointy sticks on which to spear hot dogs or marshmallows. I attempted to fish as the native people did, with spears–an endeavor that never brought success. Several times, I tried to whittle fishing hooks.

Most of the time, however, whittling served no particular purpose. I shaved away at a stick until it was too slender to remove any more wood safely. I whittled to see how slim a stick I could make. I whittled to pass the time until something more interesting occurred.

While whittling, I imagined things. Told myself stories, remembered books and characters, wondered what would happen if…thought up inventions that might be useful or fun, dreamed up games to play with friends, pictured far away or fantasy places and how I would explore them. Probably I looked as intent and absorbed as that boy under his pine tree.

I noticed him because he wasn’t engaged with an electronic device. I noticed him because he did not notice me, or any of the vehicles zipping past his front yard. I noticed him because I identified with his busy hands and intent mind. There is a kind of Zen experience that can come through the process of whittling: busy hands busy mind; followed by busy hands, imaginative mind; followed by busy hands, quiet mind.

It has been awhile since I have done any whittling. But I have a few nice, sharp pocket knives in the house. Maybe I’ll try it again soon.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Poetry, history, connectivity

We are connected, perhaps too closely, too immediately. With Nigeria and Boko Haram. With Paris and Charlie Hebdo. Ferguson, MO. Eric Garner in New York. George Zimmerman. Iraq. Syria. It’s easy to continue this list–too easy.

What we tend to want are simple solutions, dichotomies, dualities, one choice or another–not complexities and subtleties. But the human brain, the human culture, the human genome, the human body and the systems in and through which we operate are damned complicated.

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Former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins gets a great deal of press, and sometimes he gets criticism for his popularity; but in a recent interview he states in apparently simple terms how complex the human condition is, and why we need compassion, and poetry:

The poem shows us that these emotions, love and grief, have been going on through the centuries; and that the emotion we’re feeling today is not just our emotion, it’s the human emotion.

Poetry is the only history we have of human emotions. Most history books, what we call history books, are stories of battles and treaties, negotiations and beheadings and coronations. But poetry is the only reminder of this very essential part of being human, which is one’s emotional life and all the dimensions it entails.

The history books will leave out many of the crimes, massacres, terrorist acts, and bloody little belligerent actions of people and their governments and cultures and belief systems. History cannot help but be compromised by point of view–it is always, as Churchill noted, “written by the victors,” even when they are trying to be even-handed and objective. But poetry is all about point of view. The “tell it slant” of Dickinson, ambiguity and mixed feelings, individual imaginations and individual interpretations. As Collins puts it:

I think writing and creating are expressions of an epistemological position — that is, how you look at the world, that slant you look at it from. And that’s all I feel I am in a palpable way responsible to: using that slant to get at some truth or a little smidgen of beauty.

It’s a matter of being true to your imagination, and being true to your vision, and true to the material you’re working with, whether it’s a violin or the dictionary of the English language. You have to listen to all the other violinists who have ever played, and read all of the poetry you can consume. That’s my sense of responsibility. It’s an artistic responsibility, not so much a political one, not so much a financial one or a responsibility based on commodity. It can’t be commodified.

As a teacher myself, I love the anecdote in this interview about a past student who, years later, could recall a poem he’d memorized for Collins’ class. Collins says:

[T]eaching is a very mysterious process. You’re throwing information, in a sense, into the dark. I mean, you spend an hour talking to this group of increasingly younger people and you walk out of there and you think sometimes you’ve had a good class, and other times it’s not been that great. But no matter what it is to you, you’re not sure how it’s being taken or what effect you’ve had.

The story reminds me of one time when I was getting my teeth examined; my dentist (knowing I teach poetry) said to me, “You know, in college and dental school, I took Chemistry. I had five classes in Chemistry. And I never, hardly ever, in my current job, use that information. I almost never think about chemistry. But I took a class on Milton’s Paradise Lost. A poetry class, really. And  you know, to this day–sometimes I find myself thinking about that poem. And that class, and those lines. Really. It’s stayed with me much longer, and more significantly, than any of the chemistry courses I took.”

Billy Collins would surely smile and nod if I were to tell him this story. Those connections are the invaluable sort: beyond information and into the mystery of what makes us human beings. Teachers learn from this sort of experience. It stays with us.

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We may not be able to resolve the wars, prejudices, pride and anger and sense of  injustice that cause people to murder one another for revenge, honor, religious feeling, economic or territorial needs, or fears so deep we may not even be able to name them. Even tolerance has its downside: a tendency to refrain or excuse when speaking up might be necessary, if dangerous. Not all of us enjoy the learning we can gain from adversity or from trying to understand our enemies, who may not respect a willingness to listen. Not all of us learn from great literature, or have the patience to live with art that discomfits or challenges us. It is easier to paint Satan with the broad brush of evil, when Milton’s character possesses nuance and depth. The same with Mohammed or Jesus, the Pope or Buddha, Putin, Obama, or any world leader or financial oligarch.

We are all people in the world, flesh and bone, loved by someone, suffering and gratified by daily life, under the same sun and moon. The sun and moon that have appeared in poems from time immemorial. The biosphere that connects us whether we like it or not.

Objects and stories

I’ve been occupied with many things lately that take me away from blogging and even from poetry. I have been re-reading Hard Times which seems, suddenly, relevant and appropriate to life. I deeply value my world of the imagination, which is not bi-modal, black-and-white, straight facts, simple storyline, no diversions. It is rich and complex and worthy of exploration. It is mysterious and loving and paradoxical, a puzzle and a joyful muddle and a pool of sorrows. It loves to divulge and elaborate and dwells in velvety ambiguities.

I post herein a quote not from Dickens, however, but from Edmund deWaal’s book The Hare with Amber Eyes–in hopes that it will jog my memory for a further post on this topic eventually.

“It is not just things that carry stories with them. Stories are a kind of thing, too. Stories and objects share something, a patina….perhaps patina is a process of rubbing back so that the essential is revealed, the way that a striated stone tumbled in a river feels irreducible, the way that this netsuke of a fox has become more than a memory of a nose and a tail. But it also seems additive, in the way that a piece of oak furniture gains over years and years of polishing…

You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start. You begin to tell a story.”

ipomoea

Or something that is not in your pocket. Something you may see along the road, on a path in a park or forest, reflected in a window. The story, perhaps, of a story you thought you knew well–one your father told you, which his father told him, and to which there is truth but also layers and about which you may be able to weave another tale.