Notes on imagination, Poetry as Soul-making

Poetry as soul-making

Strictly speaking, what I want to talk about today does not exist, or at least if it does, remains for the most part unconscious to the rational, waking ego’s daylight gaze. Nonetheless, I’m forced to call this unknown phantasm something, and the name ‘imagination’ seems to suit it fine. Imagination is that matrix of possibility somewhere between the Real and the Ideal. Imagination is the engine of human life, the shaper of our desires and performer of our ideals.  Jung called it the Psyche, Jesus called it Christ, Plato called it the Good. These are ‘large’ words. ‘Heavy’ words. Their meaning is saturated, so much so that it overflows and all but defies comprehension.

Talking about the imagination is a lot like talking about silence, since every time I speak a sentence, I blow out the candle warming the perceptuo-image of my organismic experience with words I learned in school. I turn the reality of the light of the Real into the shadows of my educated mind’s finite ideas.

The Psyche is a philosophical invention. Or at least, whatever I say about her becomes a philosophical invention. I prefer the term imagination as a metaphysical ultimate, much in the sense that Whitehead employs the term creativity. I cannot be sure what I mean when I call it, ‘imagination,’ in the same way I am never quite sure what I mean when I say I.

Jung, The Red Book (Liber Primus, fol iii(r)):

“When you say that the place of the soul is not, then it is not. But if you say that it is, then it is. Notice what the ancients said in images: the word is a creative act. The ancients said: in the beginning was the Word. Consider this and think about it. The words that oscillate between nonsense and supreme meaning are the oldest and truest.”

Schelling: “nature is the unconscious poetry of the spirit”

Blake: “The imagination is the divine body of the lord Jesus, blessed forever”

Blake thought every honest person is a prophet. (Poetry not a unique skill, but a universal endowment).

What I want to say cannot be said, but if I am able I will here attempt to display it. I cannot describe for you the myths within which we live and breathe, but I can enact them for you here upon the state. If we are lucky, I will invoke common fields of feeling, and the ideas in each of our private minds will receive a shared sense of being. A concept is a common field of feeling, something which grasps us in an environment and calls us to attention. A conception is not an idea in an individual mind. It is an event in the world. I speak in order to call attention to something that is always already there—always already here. It “is” silence, the absence of speech, of presence, of world, of order, of Logos. The silence is the supreme meaning, the promise of perfect meaning. Derrida spoke of the messianicity of language, the need to be hopeful about the final word that is always to come. Our conversations can never be settled, we must always agree to meet again, or sever.

Jung (Liber Primus, iii(v)):

“The meaning of events is the supreme meaning, that is not in events, and not in the soul, but is the God standing between events and the soul, the mediator of life, the way, the bridge and the going across. My soul is my supreme meaning, my image of God, neither God himself nor the supreme meaning. God becomes apparent in the supreme meaning of the human community.”

The poetic imagination is not a highly prized and rare skill, but an essential aspect of every literate soul’s life-process.

Shakespeare, A midsummer’s night dream:

The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
As imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name. (5.1.7-12).

Plato was not trying to annihilate or deconstruct poetry, as such; he was calling the Homeric psyche into a more intimate relation with itself, into a tighter coiling of consciousness upon itself. Prior to Plato, the Logos had only collective, mythological significance. After Plato, it’s meaning was given to men. Aristotle swallowed the songs of ages, turning the rumors of orality into the rhetorico-physical description (not prediction) of categorical schemes and logical analyses. But St. Paul warns in 2 Corinthians that the letter kills; only the spirit gives life. Aristotle’s impersonal poetics can be inwardized, or personalized, even further. Not philosophical description, but poetic participation becomes the goal of our soul’s incarnation.

John Keats:

[to Benjamin Bailey] “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination – What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth – whether it existed before or not – for I have the same idea of all our passions as of love: they are all, in their sublime, creative of essential beauty. The imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream, – he awoke and found it truth. I am more zealous in this affair because I have never yet been able to perceive how anything can be known for truth by consecutive reasoning – and yet it must be. Can it be that even the greatest philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections? However it may be, O for a life of sensation rather than of thoughts! It is a ‘Vision in the form of Youth,’ a shadow of reality to come. And this consideration has further convinced me, – for it has come as auxiliary to another favorite speculation of mine, – that we shall enjoy ourselves hereafter by having what we called happiness on earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated. And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation, rather than hunger as you do after truth. Adam’s dream will do here, and seems to be a conviction that imagination and its empyreal reflection is the same as human life and its spiritual repetition. But, as I was saying, the simple imaginative mind may have its rewards in the repetition of its own silent working coming continually on the spirit with a fine suddenness – to compare great things with small – have you never by being Surprised with an old Melody – in a delicious place – by a delicious voice, felt over again your very Speculations and Surmises at the time it first operated on your Soul – do you not remember forming to yourself the singer’s face more beautiful than it was possible and yet with the elevation of the Moment you did not think so – even then you were mounted on the Wings of Imagination so high – that the Protrotype must be here after – that delicius face you will see. What a time! I am continually running away from the subject – sure this cannot be exactly the case with a complex Mind – one that is imaginative and at the same time careful of its fruits – who would exist partly on Sensation partly on thought – to whom it is necessary that years should bring the philosophic Mind – such an one I consider your’s and therefore it is necessary to your eternal Happiness that you not only drink this old Wine of Heaven, which I shall call the redigestion of our most ethereal Musings on Earth; but also increase in knowledge and know all things.”

“Invention which I take to be the Polar Star of Poetry, as Fancy is the Sails, and Imagination the Rudder.”

 The Poet

WHERE’S the Poet? show him! show him,
Muses nine! that I may know him!
‘Tis the man who with a man
Is an equal, be he King,
Or poorest of the beggar-clan,
Or any other wondrous thing
A man may be ‘twixt ape and Plato;
‘Tis the man who with a bird,
Wren or Eagle, finds his way to
All its instincts; he hath heard
The Lion’s roaring, and can tell
What his horny throat expresseth,
And to him the Tiger’s yell
Comes articulate and presseth
On his ear like mother-tongue.

[to Shelly on Aug. 16, 1820]

“And is this not extraordinary talk for the writer of Endymion, whose mind was like a pack of scattered cards? I am picked up and sorted to a pip. My imagination is a monastery, and I am its monk. You must explain my metaphors to yourself. I am in expectation of Prometheus every day.”

[February 14-May 3, 1819]

The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is “a vale of tears” from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven–what a little circumscribe[d] straightened notion! Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making” Then you will find out the use of the world (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it) I say “Soul making” Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence-There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions–but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. I[n]telligences are atoms of perception –they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God –how then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them–so as ever to possess a bliss peculiar to each ones individual existence? How, but by the medium of a world like this? This point I sincerely wish to consider because I think it a grander system of salvation than the Christian religion — or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation–This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years–These three Materials are the Intelligence–the human heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind) and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming theSoul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity. I can scarcely express what I but dimly perceive-and vet I think I perceive it–that you may judge the more clearly I will put it in the most homely form possible– I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read–I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School–and I will call the Child able to read, the Soulmade from that school and itshornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul! A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways! Not merely is the Heart a Hornbook, It is the Minds Bible, it is the Minds experience, it is the teat from which the mind or intelligence sucks its identity–As various as the Lives of Men are–so various become their souls, and thus does God make individual beings, Souls, Identical Souls of the sparks of his own essence–This appears to me faint sketch of a system of Salvation which does not affront our reason and humanity–I am convinced that many difficulties which Christians labour under would vanish before it–there is one wh[i]ch even now Strikes me–the Salvation of Children–In them the Spark or intelligence returns to God without an identity-it having had no time to learn of, and be altered by, the heart–or seat of the human Passions…

[May 3, 1818]

… axioms in philosophy are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses: We read fine things but never feel them to the full until we have gone the same Steps as the Author –I know this is not plain; you will know exactly my meaning when I say, that now I shall relish Hamlet more than I ever have done-… Until we are sick, we understand not;–in fine, as Byron says, “Knowledge is sorrow,” and I go on to say that “Sorrow is Wisdom”–and further for aught we can know for certainty! “Wisdom is folly”… I compare human life to a large mansion of Many Apartments, two of which I can only describe, the doors of the rest being as yet shut upon me–The first we step into we call the infant or thoughtless Chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think–We remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second Chamber remain wide open, showing a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle –within us–we no sooner get into the second Chamber, which I shall call the Chamber of Maiden-Thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere,we see nothing but pleasant wonders, and think of delaying there for ever in delight: However among the effects this breathing is father of is that tremendous one of sharpening one’s vision into the-head heart and nature of Man–of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak, Pain, Sickness and oppression–whereby This Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open–but all dark–all leading to dark passages–We see not the balance of good and evil. We are in a Mist–We are now in that state–We feel the “burden of the Mystery,” To this point was Wordsworth come, as far as I can conceive when he wrote “Tintern Abbey” and it seems to me that his Genius is explorative of those dark Passages. Now if we live, and go on thinking, we too shall explore them. he is a Genius and superior [to] us…

[February 3, 1818]

My dear Reynolds,

It may be said that we ought to read our Contemporaries, that Wordsworth&c should have their due from us. but for the sake of a few fine imaginative or domestic passages, are we to be bullied into a certain Philosophy engendered in the whims of an Egotist– Every man has his speculations, but every man does not brood and peacock over them till he makes a false coinage and deceives himself–Many a man can travel to the very bourne of Heaven,and yet want confidence to put down his half seeing… Poetry should be great & unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject.-How beautiful are the retired flowers! how would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, admire me I am a violet! dote upon me I am a primrose! Modern poets differ from the Elizabethans in this.

[February 27, 1818]

My dear Taylor,

… In Poetry I have a few axioms, and you will see how far I am from their center. I think Poetry should surprise by a fine excess and not by Singularity–it should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance-l” Its touches of Beauty should never be half way thereby making the reader breathless instead of content: the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural natural too him–shine over him and set soberly although in magnificence leaving him in the Luxury of twilight–but it is easier to think what Poetry should be than to write it–and this leads me on to another axiom. That if Poetry comes not as naturally as the Leaves to a tree it had better not come at all…

Plato on poetry:

Republic X (p. 1211/606e), after suggesting poetry leads us to enjoy the sufferings of others, as in Homer’s tragedy, Socrates says to Glaucon:

“…When you happen to meet those who praise Homer and say that he’s the poet who educated Greece, that it’s worth taking up his works in order to learn how to manage and educate people, an that one should arrange one’s whole life in accordance with his teachings, you should welcome these people and treat them as friends, since they’re as good as they’re capable of being, and you should agree that Homer is the most poetic of the tragedians and the first among them. But you should also know that hymns to the gods and eulogies to good people are the only poetry we can admit into our city. If you admit the pleasure-giving Muse, whether in lyric or epic poetry, pleasure and pain will be kings in your city instead of law or the thing that everyone has always believed to be best, namely, reason… in view of the nature of poetry, we had reason to banish it from the city earlier, for our argument compelled us to do so. But in case we are charged with a certain harshness and lack of sophistication, let’s also tell poetry that there is an ancient quarrel between it and philosophy, which is evidenced by such expressions as ‘the dog yelping and shrieking at its master,’ ‘great in the empty eloquence of fools,’ ‘the mob of wise men that has mastered Zeus,’ and the ‘subtle thinkers, beggars all.’ Nonetheless, if the poetry that aims at pleasure and imitation has any argument to bring forward that proves it ought to have a place in a well-governed city, we at least would be glad to admit it, for we are well aware of the charm it exercises. But, be that as it may, to betray what one believes to be the truth is impious… we’ll allow its defenders, who aren’t poets themselves but lovers of poetry, to speak in prose on its behalf and to show that it not only gives pleasure but is beneficial both to constitutions and to human life. Indeed, we’ll listen to them graciously, for we’d certainly profit if poetry were shown to be not only pleasant but also beneficial… if such a defence isn’t made, we’ll behave like people who have fallen in love with someone but who force themselves to stay away from him, because they realize that their passion isn’t beneficial. In the same way, because the love of this sort of poetry has been implanted in us by the upbringing we have received under our fine constitutions, we are well disposed to any proof that it is the best and truest thing. But if it isn’t able to produce such a defense, then, whenever we listen to it, we’ll repeat the argument we have just now put forward like an incantation so as to preserve ourselves from slipping back into that childish passion for poetry which the majority of people have. And we’ll go on chanting that such poetry is not to be taken seriously or treated as a serious undertaking with some kind of hold on the truth, but that anyone who is anxious about the constitution within him must be careful when he hears it and must continue to believe what we have said about it.”

(Republic ~395):

“Unlike simple narrative, mimesis poses a particular psychic danger, because as the speaker of the narrative one may take on the character of literary persona in question. It is as though the fictionality of the persona is forgotten; in acting out a part one acts the part, and then one begins to act (in “real life”) as the character would act. One does not actually take oneself to bethe fictional character; rather, the “model” or pattern of response or sentiment or thought one has acted out when “imitating” the character becomes enacted. There is no air-tight barrier between throwing yourself (especially habitually) into a certain part, body and soul, and being molded by the part; no firm boundary, in that sense, between what happens on and off the stage. By contrast, Socrates argues, a simple narration preserves distance between narrator and narrated…..He is asserting, though without filling out the psychological mechanisms in the detail for which one would wish, that from childhood up, mimesis shapes our images and our fantasies, our unconscious or semi-conscious pictures and feelings, and thereby shapes our characters, especially that part of our nature prone to what he thinks of as irrational or non-rational.” –Stanford Encyclopedia

“on the one hand, poetry promotes intrapsychic conflict; on the other, it keeps us unconscious of that conflict, for the irrational part of our psyche cannot hear reason’s corrections. That is why poetry, with its throbbing rhythms and beating of breasts, appeals equally to the nondescript mob in the theater and to the best among us. But if poetry goes straight to the lower part of the psyche, that is where it must come from.” -J. Lear, “Inside and outside the Republic,” in his Open Minded (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 240


Walt Whitman from Song of Myself:

Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-washed babe, and am not contained between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and everyone good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
I am not an earth nor an adjunct of the earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)
Every kind for itself and its own, for me mine male and female,
For me those that have been boys and that love women,
For me the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be slighted,
For me the sweetheart and the old maid, for me mothers and the mothers of mothers,
For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears,
For me children and the begetters of children.
Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away.


Rilke Sonnets to Orpheus “Endless Trace” (trans. Chris Bamford):

But you O divine one, resounder to the end, when the swarm of unrequited maenads fell upon you, o beautiful one, your over sung their cries with order, your edifying song rose from the destroyers’. No one was present who could crush your head and lyre, no matter how they struggled and wrested. And all the sharp stones they threw at your heart, on touching you, became tender and gifted with hearing. Finally they tore you, impelled by vengeance, while your sound still lingered in rock and lions, in trees and birds, you still sing there now. O you lost god, you endless trace.  Only because in the end hate divided you are we now nature’s mouth and listeners.


6 Comments Add yours

  1. stefan says:

    Thanks for this one, though I’m not sure if I follow. Incidentally I’ve also been thinking about how to give the phenomenon of imagination a public life, a kind of way of speaking it in ways that translate those peculiar ontic consistencies – which I feel you very rightly characterize as a space between the Real and the Ideal – into utterables. It is an invisible locus of radically transformative powers in the universe – a prime pathway to political emancipation too I feel. We are imagination engineering all the time, but we never give the phenomenon itself it’s proper ontological dignity.

    I think I see where you wish to go here, and I tend to like this gesture that the different ontic consistencies we find of the world (here this weird doing-thing ‘imagination’) perhaps need their own linguistic-poetic registers to become speakable at all without obliterating them too radically (reducing, overmining, undermining). At the same time I am not so sure about how to delimit the imaginative process into some utterables for my own purposes. I say this because I don’t want to primarily suggest a different enactive mode of being to my readers (if it is at all fair to say that this is one of your desiderates?), at least not atm. Rather I want to make it describable for social scientists, in the kind of register that makes the stuff of imagination thinkable as an immanently transformatory kind of thing – found most certainly where human people make do, perhaps in other forms for other creatures as well.

    To focus on humans: I’ve been been thinking about texts that circulate to shape cosmogenic processes, say planning papers written in a fairly technical register, unleashed to help carve tracks and rails for an unfolding technological project. In becoming alive with a reader (person plus text), the worlds in the text become active as processes of imagination, no matter if they mobilize things also found unproblematically existant extratextually, beyond the duration of the imaginative bubble (say a specific person, still alive and named in the text) or if what is born are fictional beings, the nation, pasts, futures, anxieties, hopes, dreams, a sense of belonging etc. I tend to think of a full such experience as a kind of heterogenous imagination engineering, where imagined worlds work on us and our worlds as we are engaged with co-birthing them.

    So, to come to a point. Would you have a problem with seeing imagination becoming expressive by ways of reading or being read by technocratic genres? Or would we in such a process loose grasp of what it ontically special about imagination? Would there be too much Real or too much Ideal in the mix to adequately hit the ontic register of imagination?

    1. Stefan,

      Thanks for your thought-provoking comment. I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “technocratic genres.” I do think technology has an important role to play in a civilization grounded in practices of active imagination, but I would not construe imagination itself as a form of technology, since its function is not to manipulate but to create. I prefer to contrast, say, genetic engineering (to give one example) with what might be called archetypal imagineering. The former does without knowing; the latter knows by doing.

      1. stefan says:

        Hey Matt. Thanks for the reply. Excuse the weird in the post above. It was a weird afternoon in my head. In relation to “technocratic genre”: I meant to gauge if there is such a thing as un- or counter-imaginative process for you. For example: if ones imagination is mobilized by a sensemaking-prosthesis i.e. a text whose style is “Knowing The Real”. Now if a persons me-experience is spoken into being by such a form of storytelling, would then for the duration of the reading experience the imaginative well be silenced? Or would it supply the experience nonetheless, being an unchangeable current that just makes creativity but no specific content? That is to say, does it lie before conscious minding? Can imagination change registers? Is it awake all the time? If not, how is it modulated?

        My own tangent on the word imagination is to find ways of localising imagination as a process in a world that may not be bifurcated into the subject/object binary. So the descriptive gloss I’m after can’t assume that split as primary, plus that it has to account for the specificities of living human organisms as at least co-occurent with formidably strong wells of imagination. Where living humans are around a certain flavor of imaginative generativity is present. This is not to forget other forms of life, but just to assume that we are most intimately in contact with the imaginative pulse of our own species.

        But how to talk about what goes on as human flavoured imagination? And where in the worlds is it? Spatially, temporally, between what processes is it nested? How does one travel to meet it? Or is it a pervasive cosmic principle to you? One could for example use the language of psychology and gloss imagination as the variable interplay of human mental capacities that at any time generate human flavoured creativity. How does your thinking of imagination relate to categories like memory, decision making, mental time travel (including for example scenarising pasts, presents and futures)? Or to take an enactive view. Would the various forms of sense-making an autonomous, autopoetic human organism displays in real-times count as imaginative work? And what happens when we go to the movies (or take the text-example above), say when we get hijacked by cognitive-emotive plugins? Is imagination then done something to/with? Can another organisms imaginative faculty speak through me?

        Well, obviously these are more notes than structured argumentation. I hope they can give some constructive impulses though.

      2. I would say that the subject/object binary so characteristic of modernity and indeed post-modernity (which, as Charlene Spretnak has suggested, is perhaps better termed “hyper-modernity”) is a form of imaginative enactment. Only, it is a suicidal and fragmenting form, rather than a life-generating, poetic form. The imagination is the source of both heaven and hell, both harmony and discord.

        I think the imagination is, strictly speaking, “nowhere” and “nowhen.” Its creativity is always spatially and temporally expressed (though not always in the “external” space-time studied by science), but itself remains behind or before both space and time. When imagination atrophies, the depth of the life-world begins to shrivel up and die, since imagination is involved in everything from basic perception to reflection to narration. Memory and imagination are closely related, and I’d need to spend some time parsing out the differences (Goethe: “memory is the mother of the muses”).

  2. astrotometry says:

    Blake: “The imagination is the divine body of the lord Jesus, blessed forever”

    A shame that so many people believe that could have been nailed to a tree.

    Beautiful entry, Matthew.


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