Category Archives: Thought Provoking Readings: Art

Poetic Imagination vs. Fantasy

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.

Poetry says:

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.

Captured in a jar

Ball Jar Art–new territory. In preparation for a gallery opening at the professional art gallery on site at the school where I work, I am working on the following art piece. It is a Ball jar containing a bird’s nest and studio ephemera, including materials such as sandpaper and wire, photographic negatives, chalk, etc., accompanied by a poem attached in a self-enclosed envelope secured with wire closure.

The limitations of this project included the narrow width of the jar mouth, as well as the distortion of the glass (if you look at a Ball jar you’ll see raised texture areas to signify measurements, as well as the word “Ball” across the front). While photographing the piece I grew to appreciate the distortions and limitations, as well as recognize that it may not be completely finished yet . . .

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Ekphrasis

Twentieth-Century Poetry and the Visual Arts

by Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux, (c) 2008; Cambridge University Press

One of the topics of this blog will be to contemplate readings that have provided me an opportunity to see life in general in a different light, that I hope will serve as a starting point for others to pursue intellectual challenges and, I assume, insights.

While reading the introduction to this textbook, and frankly, wondering why I am someone who reads textbooks for fun . . . I realized I had previously only a basic understanding of “ekphrasis”, which typically means a written response to visual art. Many years reading and writing poetry, and then the completion of a degree in Poetry, does not mean “one” (me) thoroughly understands a subject. Recently, for a variety of reasons which I will touch on in other posts, the insights are a-flowin’.

Loizeaux makes a point that:

” . . . out of the ekphrastic situation, the simple, ‘blameless fun’ of looking at pictures, balloon big issues of life and art. The ekphastic poet . . .comes to the painting seeking friendship, fun, a little flirtation: in short, connection to others in a world that seems warmer and more certain than his own, only to find it indifferent to him. ‘That simple world from which we’ve been evicted,’ is how Sassoon similarly described the scene in an English landscape.” (8)

Loizeaux refers to the “cry of nostalgic modernity” and the longing for an (idealized) time in the past, while discussing poet Richard Wilbur’s poem “A Dutch Courtyard” (1947) in response to Pieter De Hooch’s painting, A Dutch Courtyard (1658/1660).

Loizeaux’s text “called to light” the relationship between poet, painter, and the public; raised the question, what exactly do we do when we write about art? Why write creatively, in response to art? So many benign exercises in poetry workshops later, as students are encouraged to write poems in response to art, there is much more depth to explore to really understand this relationship.

Any of us who engage in ekphrasis, participate in this dialectical situation where we simultaneously crave to enter the painting or work of art, or experience it more deeply, while knowing the indifference of the painting or art work towards us even as we long for this engagement.

The question of the role of poetry in our current time, is a question for future posts . . . the concept and experience of “nostalgia” is also worth exploring. What is nostalgia? Why do we experience it? Is it a natural condition of being human?

If you haven’t explored Ekphrasis (or have no idea what it is), I encourage you to read the following poems for a start:

“Landscape with Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams

“A Dutch Courtyard” by Richard Wilbur

“Mathilde in Normandy” by Adrienne Rich

Enjoy!