I have been thinking about imagination as compared to fantasy, for several reasons. I am reading the French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard– systematically reading each of his books related to the imagination.
I have also engaged in conversation recently with a friend and colleague who does not consider himself in the least imaginative; he is an Accountant, who believes that artists create from a mysterious source of talent, and that he could never create a work of art. He asked me, “Isn’t writing poetry an escape? Isn’t that why you do it?”
In our conversations, I clarified that I do not see poetry (reading or writing it) as an escape from reality. In my experience, poetry is reality. However, I appreciate the opportunity to think in more depth on this topic; why read and write poetry?
I do not have a tidy answer to this question. As a related digression (slash, smokescreen) consider the following passages as a brief illustration of the difference between imagination and fantasy.
Bachelard’s Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement, is one of his texts that deals with each of the four elements as a phenomenological exploration of the imagination. He shares the following passage from Rilke, which he calls a “very pure document from the point of view of the dynamic imagination . . .”:
Then there was a street. We were going down it together, keeping step, close to each other. Her arm was lying across my shoulders.
The street was wide, with the emptiness of morning, a boulevard slight downhill, sloping just so much as would be needed to take the little bit of weight from a child’s step. She walked as if little wings were on her feet . . .
The sensation, Bachelard points out, is “lightness”, which is an essential characteristic of flight as experienced in dream.
He points out examples, as well, of writers who do not manage to capture the essential sensation of flight. The writer creates a fantastical experience of flying in a dream. This passage from a writer, Jean-Paul:
This flight, in which I am sometimes climbing and sometimes rising straight up with my arms beating like oars, is a real air and ether bath for the brain, voluptuous and restful–if it were not for the fact that the too rapid strokes of my arms in my dream make me feel dizzy and lead me to fear brain congestion. Truly happy, exalted in body and spirit . . . etc.
In this passage, the writer attempts to convey a story about an event, i.e. a rationalized dream of flying. Frankly, this writer is “trying too hard”; he seems to have a thesis or end in mind, rather than re-experiencing a sublime experience.
I see a difference between imagination, and an intentional escape from reality, or an intentional attempt to create a fantastical world, as in Fantasy and Science Fiction.
I love Science Fiction, however I have no illusions about it; I read it to escape. The best Science Fiction makes you think differently about society as a whole, and about our own part in creating the future society. There is often a thesis. I now feel lukewarm about Fantasy, however, as a child, Fantasy stories were food for a hungry imagination. Perhaps reading Fantasy primes the mind in some way? I will make sure not to denigrate Fantasy.
As in Fantasy, a poem exists within a particular context, in which the images relate in their own “system”, if you will.
But Fantasy exists in a world that will never be (Science Fiction exists in a world that could well be, so, look out!).
Poetry doesn’t need a thesis, and the best poetry doesn’t lead you into an imaginary world just to leave you there, stranded. The best poetry is rooted in real experiences, with enough tempting images to lead you deeper into an idiosyncratic understanding of the Real.
Celebrate and develop your idiosyncratic mind, your unique perceptions of the world around you.
Have the courage to let the reader manage their own journey, but give enough substance to sustain them as they go. Don’t expect them to arrive where you want them to; do point them in the direction of something intriguing that intrigues you.