“You’re imagining things!” How often have you heard someone respond this way? A husband to a wife, maybe? One friend to another? A parent to a child? In any case, it’s clearly a put-down. When I was teaching writing my college freshmen assured me the imagination is a thing of childhood—fairytales and Winnie the Pooh—given up in adulthood.
Really? Then why do we all understand—get the same meaning from these images?
Why does the juxtaposition of those two images jar? Why do trees become images for growth? Why, all of a sudden, has fantasy become the rage among young readers? How, in the previous blog , did my mother’s hands become an image, for me, of a way of life? Why do you associate some object, flower, or person with fear, love, or laughter? Why do we put a book down because the author has failed to create a visual picture—an image—of the hero or the place? And why do we worry that giving children too many images via television and computers will lead to an inability to create images of their own as they read?
No, imagination is not a thing of childhood. Images give form to emotion, give shape to our experience of life. What does loyalty look like? Draw a picture of fear? Why do balloons make us happy? And in what sense are such images not “true”? I have no idea why hands—my mother’s in particular—became an image—or metaphor if you prefer—of her culture, but for me they express an emotional truth. Suzanne Langer, who holds that our imagination gives first form to experiences and because it does so, our reason can then take hold of them and they become ideas we can talk about.*[i] But when I talk about it rationally, as I am now, I distance myself from that truth and it begins to lose its impact. So I’ll stop.
Writers, especially poets, know and depend on the power of images to express the inexpressible, to give form to emotion. It is the source of story and poem, but is beyond the command of reason. It is a fickle friend, nowhere to be found if we go looking for it. We go through rituals each day to coax it from the shadows. We know that it will forever dodge reason, but we still command it to come forth. Which it will not. It requires a certain fascination with its quirkiness, a delight at its uninvited appearances to keep facing the blank page and trust this untrustworthy voice to appear—sooner or later—in its own time.
Then the conscious mind can shape it. The poets are the masters at using pure imagery to convey meaning. Next week, poet Jane Alynn will talk about her experience with this elusive creature.
[i]* Langer, Suzanne. Philosophy in a New Key, Third Edition, Harvard Press, 1942