“Imagination is always considered to be the faculty of forming images. But it is rather the faculty of deforming the images offered by perception, of freeing ourselves from the immediate images; it is especially the faculty of changing images.”
—Gaston Bachelard, On Poetic Imagination and Reverie, 19
What does it mean to be “imaginative” in poetry?
I used to think it meant being unpredictable. Coming up with unusual metaphors that would have people scratching their heads. But I’ve come to think it’s more a state of mind that we can cultivate—less product, more process. Looseness, if I had to choose one word. The kind of looseness that we feel sitting on the beach, sipping a beer, watching clouds drift into the shape of something we’ve long forgotten. Looseness of an expert golfer about to swing. What lets a jazz musician listen to another musician and, in that moment, respond wholeheartedly despite the fact that he has no clue where he’ll go next.
Bachelard calls that relaxed state of mind “reverie” or “dream”:
“The imagination will see only if it has visions. And it will have visions if it is educated through reveries before being educated by experience, if experience follows as confirmation of its reveries.” (16)
To Bachelard, the roots of a poem are invisible, deep in the soil of our unconscious. What sprouts through the earth—what becomes visible—is the poem itself, particularly the poetic image. Something paradoxical has to happen, then, when we sit down to write a poem about things we can actually see. We must “free ourselves” from the object. Cultivate looseness so that in one moment we’re lucidly, precisely describing an object in the physical realm, and in the next, we’re breaking faith with it. We must be willing to “deform” and “change” the image.
We’ve been focusing so far in our class on seeing and describing precisely. And how, by attending fully to the visible world, we immediately unleash associations—our memories, emotions, knowledge of the world. But alongside that ekphrastic skill, we’ll also practice learning to unsee. To say, boldly, what isn’t there.
This is a little sketch I made on my iPad today using just my index finger and some line/color settings on an app. It’s the same shriveled branch in the photograph at the top of my post. At first, I tried to recreate each stem, leaf, and petal. My sketches looked, well, both clumsy and uninteresting. I started fresh, this time telling myself “it’s okay to be wrong, just draw what you feel.” The resulting sketch, which I did in a few minutes and with much more pleasure, felt both freer and more “true.” I’d given myself permission to create a leaf that looked only vaguely like the leaf I held. To be unfaithful.
When writing poems, there are many ways to be faithless.
One of them is to say things that didn’t happen. We think of this, obviously, in fiction, but we do this all the time in poetry, too. Sometimes it’s a small act—calling it a green pear, rather than the red one actually in the fruit bowl. Sometimes it’s huge: the whirr of the speaker’s razor turning into a helicopter in Tomas Transtromer’s poem, “The Open Window,” which we’ll study this week. Or a child in a white t-shirt walking toward the lake at the end of Cole Swenson’s “Five Landscapes” (from a section in her book called “Of Whiteness.”) Was the child the speaker saw wearing a white shirt? Was there ever such a child? Does it matter?
Another method is to use metaphor. But instead of using metaphor to ice the cake, we plunge both hands into the icing bowl. This is a technique we see in Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert’s “Mother,” from a book of persona poems called Mr. Cogito. The son in “Mother” becomes a ball of yarn that falls out of her lap, tangles, and unwinds. The lasting power of this poem—its imprint on my brain years after first reading it—derives from this homely but vividly imagined metaphor.
But didn’t I start out by saying that imagination was more process than product?
I know that’s true. It’s hard to teach because it’s hard to understand how that process works in me, when it works at all, let alone in others. But when we lift our pens and write in a moment of reverie—not knowing what words might come next, focusing on something outside ourselves—I think we build our capacity for looseness. And each time we revisit our drafts with a fresh eye and dare to make big changes, we cultivate that looseness. We’ll keep doing both throughout this class.