As promised last week, poet Jane Alynn ( http://janealynn.com/) joins to our conversation on the role of the imagination. Jane, a friend and colleague, is a frequent contributor to Skagit Valley Writers League workshops on creativity and poetry. I’m delighted to have her here.
Like the two mischievous characters in The Cat in the Hat, imagination and image-making sometimes cause confusion. Though they aren’t the same thing, they both involve new ways of seeing and have powerful effects on our writing.
Thing One is imagination, that mysterious, amazing, uniquely human capacity, which resides “beyond the command of reason,” as Judy says in her last post. It’s accessed through play, the wellspring of all creative acts. To play is to free ourselves from arbitrary restrictions, to break through those mental barriers that have severed us from what comes naturally in childhood—imagining, playing make-believe, creating whole worlds in our mind. Poet e.e. cummings said as much when he wrote, “As up I grew / Down I forgot.”
Thing One asks us engage in the free spirit of experimentation. To take risks. To leap. It’s the mysterious, non-rational impulse we want to fledge. Dreams, word play, juxtaposition, associative leaps—moves that don’t make sense—all subvert the logical, literal, lineal mind and lead to new perceptions. As Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux say in The Poet’s Companion, “Leaps of imagination give our work emotional energy, energy that we then experience” (130).
This springs into Thing Two.
Thing Two is image-making. Imagery and figurative language make it possible for us (and our readers) to experience the very world we’ve created in our mind’s eye.
But experience requires the presence of things, the thereness of an object or scene. When William Carlos Williams said, “No ideas but in things,” he understood that the mind translates ideas to images. “Death” conjures an image of a cemetery, gravestone, or coffin. “Love” invokes the face of a loved one, a heart, or maybe chocolate, as I just imagined. Images are “nearer to pure story,” Robert Hass writes in Twentieth Century Pleasures. “Their power lies in what they say—this is.”
Detailed sensory language, which includes all the five senses and the feelings, calls up physical sensation and gives the work that emotional energy. And authenticity. “Poems are imaginary gardens with real toads in them,” Marianne Moore once said. Images create a figurative garden where readers can stand long enough among the flowers to see them in a fresh, exciting, and vital way.
She is small and lovely. A flower—
a downy nub of the garden,
bowl-shaped and squat,
a little mottled rosette
surrounded by slender spurs of being
who’s crawled inside
to scribble her web on the ledge
of my desk window.
the strangely woven curtain
elaborately spun of threads and dust,
she’s rapt and waiting
like a medium
for her world to vibrate.
It’s detailed enough to sustain the reader’s passage into the poem, and the particulars give the poem texture and depth. By particulars I mean she is not an arachnid, the most distant of descriptions, which lacks any specificity. She isn’t even a generalized spider; she is a particular spider—“a downy nub of the garden, bowl-shaped and squat.”
An image can be tangible, such as a woven curtain. Or an image can be a behavior, such as crawling inside / to scribble. . . Or an images can be figurative, that is, stating or implying a comparison, such as “she’s rapt and waiting / like a medium / for her world to vibrate.”
There’s another thing about imagery: the way a particular thing or experience connects and is expanded when compared with another. In “House Spider,” she’s first compared with a flower, “a little mottled rosette.” Then she’s compared to a medium (psychic), expanding the image. Now I have access to words and images that relate to clairvoyants as well as to spiders and gardens.
Imagery should not be just a stage set. If it’s doing its full work it should reveal some insight, bring the poem to a higher emotional pitch or to the larger idea in the poem.
Again, “House Spider” ends with a comparison of the spider’s efforts with the narrator-writer’s efforts:
Soon she succeeds
and I, as she with the fly, grasp
the twitching iridescence
of words, the hum
surrendering into silence.
No small triumph.
Through imagery, writing gains energy and depth and often surprise. The more you permit yourself to play and to experiment with imagery and figurative language, the more likely your readers will experience the world you are creating.
Jane Alynn is the author of Necessity of Flight (Cincinnati, OH: Cherry Grove, 2011) and a chapbook Threads and Dust. Her essays appear in The Natural Enquirer and her photographs are widely exhibited.