How Do Poets Imagine Their Own Imaginations?

I’m beginning (already?!) to think about what I might write about for my dissertation.  And although the actual writing of that hopefully creative document is still years away, I can say that one thing I am interested in exploring is the notion of the imaginative in poems and poets like Elizabeth Bishop, Wallace Stevens, and John Ashbery, and the way their notions of the imaginative in content match their form and style.

What do I mean by the “notion of the imaginative”?

I suppose I mean how these poets approach, or think about, the role of imagination in their poems.  This has of course been covered extensively in the poems of Stevens, who is famous for his so-called “reality-imagination complex,” i.e. his obsession with the relationships between reality (perhaps understood here as Freud’s reality principle) and the imagination (the pleasure principle(?), or the parts of the mind that help us to order and create experience)..  Stevens notion of the imagination is famously constructivist, which is to say, his thinking about the role of the imagination is as a robust and active mechanism (for lack of a better word), that, like language, creates new realities as it imagines new ways of feeling and thinking into being.  What do I mean?  Here is an excerpt from Stevens’s “Variations On A Summer Day”:

VIII

An exercise in viewing the world.

On the motive!  But one looks at the sea

As on improvises, on the piano.

I love the comma inserted between “improvises” and “on,” as if to suggest that the thought first came to Stevens that one actively looks at the sea in the same extemporaneous and spontaneous ways in which one improvizes – (getting a feel for the overriding rhythm, paying attention to the various other instruments speaking their part, and inserting one’s voice strategically, artfully, into the tapestry of sound at points which allow for maximum involvement, expression, excitement, imagination) – and next the thought came of the specific improvizing on a piano.  And what’s interesting about this passage, then, is that the way in which the clauses of the stanza shape themselves suggests a unique link between form and content and style, a way in which the notion of the importance of seeing actively, like a jazz musician, is echoed in the way the stanza unfolds, clause by exciting clause, improvizatorially.

Stevens, among other things, stretched the poem for us, by which I mean he made more imaginative things possible through his poetry – new rhetorics, new metaphors, new and amazing and creative ways of being and unfolding and pointing and stirring – and I believe the same thing can be said for Bishop and Ashbery.  Look at this stanza from Bishop’s “The Monument,” a poem made up of an imaginary monument:

Now can you see the monument?  It is of wood

built somewhat like a box.  No.  Built

like several boxes in descending sizes

one above the other.

Each is turned half-way round so that

its corners point toward the sides

of the one below and the angles alternate.

Then on the topmost cube is set

a sort of fleur-de-lys of weathered wood,

long petals of board, pierced with odd holes,

four-sided, stiff, ecclesiastical.

From it four thin, warped poles spring out,

(slanted like fishing-poles or flag-poles)

and from them jig-saw work hangs down,

four lines of vaguely whittled ornament

over the edges of the boxes

to the ground.

The monument is one-third set against

a sea; two-thirds against a sky.

The view is geared

(that is, the view’s perspective)

so low there is no “far away,”

and we are far away within the view.

A sea of narrow, horizontal boards

lies out behind our lonely monument,

its long grains alternating right and left

like floor-boards – spotted, swarming-still,

and motionless.  A sky runs parallel,

and it is palings, coarser than the sea’s:

splintery sunlight and long-fibred clouds.

“Why does that strange sea make no sound?

Is it because we’re far away?

Where are we?  Are we in Asia Minor,

Or in Mongolia?”

This is a wonderfully pathetic (in terms of pathos) imaginary construction, and it earns its pathos largely through the interesting word-choice of “lonely” in the 25th line.  But why is the monument lonely?  And how is this related to the role of imagination in the poem, and to the passage cited above by Stevens?

If Stevens points out how differently we look, Bishop gives us something different to look at.  And that something is this remarkable monument, made out of words, and as idiosyncratically wonderful as Bishop’s imagination.  Furthermore, the process of Bishop imagining the monument is equally as improvizatory as the “one” in Stevens’s stanza looking at the sea, for we read,

Now can you see the monument?  It is of wood

built somewhat like a box.  No.  Built

like several boxes in descending sizes

one above the other.

It is the “No” in the second line, that strongly revisionary muted exclamation, that suggests to us that Bishop is also improvizing her view of the world (and word), choosing to go in one direction, then another.  I love the monument because it is so itself, and so difficult to fit it into an easily interpretive framework (perhaps why it is lonely).  It is as though Bishop were saying, “this is how the imagination works, box by wooden box, forming a kind of homely but lovely personal imaginative tower that can reach to space if we want it to.” Bishop writes,

The view is geared

(that is, the view’s perspective)

so low there is no “far away,”

and we are far away within the view.

And isn’t this the way in which we experience the imaginative visions of others?  Simultaneously near (the vividness of our experience of art!) and far away (from a distance, marginally, as the perpetual outsider that art asks us to be)?  And does the  poem itself, in its form, not mirror the way we might imagine this developing monument in our minds, with its lanky near-narrow unrolling stanza, that is devoutly asymmetrical?

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