Every Thursday, Ooligan Press invites a poet whose work is included in Alive at the Center, our anthology of poetry from Pacific Northwest writers, to blog for us. This week, we are pleased to feature Susan Parr, a poet from Seattle, WA. Please enjoy her post!
The Flight from Fancy
That secret shake and cloak—the pen-name (or ‘anon’)—reads at first (briefly) like an evasion, but in the end is accepted as simple cache, as sphinx-in-a-clamshell, as one life’s sweat and sediment canistered. The life becomes mere cautionary pinpoint. But a tenth of one percent of its person still turns out; there’s this itchy prominent “I” in the pseudonymous sign-off. It lends legitimacy to what is probably a protective evasion.
But this hiding ‘I’ has an inverse: not in the individual, but in society: not in cover, but creation, in sheer fantasy. I don’t mean the genre, but the mental skill—the fat hamburgers of the practicing illumist, the slippery lost weekends, the dial-up connivances, in all of which we slay nine-and-ninety-nine hundredths of ourselves for the deliverance from reality. Whole societies can nearly die by some epidermic nicety or other. It is the de-nonymization of everyone’s perception; it is a kind of social sawtimber—not a protective cache and canister, but a polite mental clearcut. It’s denial’s scene and set engine.
2. The Department of Fancy, or, We Cannot Continue this Post Without a Look at Coleridge’s Thoughts on Imagination
Quick re-cap: Coleridge famously detangled the stems “fancy” and “imagination” in his 1817 Biographia Literaria. Energetically concerned about their misconstrual, he clarified, though not without some obscurity along the way, that ‘imagination’ rightfully named is an “esemplastic power” that creates by a repetition in the mind of the eternal “I Am” (BL, Chapter XIII). It is the reenactment of the creativity inherent in the oppositional forces behind transcendental reality. From the balancing of oppositional forces, the imagination finds energy to create a new, unified—well, a new unified art chunk, if you will:
The poet described in ideal perfection, brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other…he diffuses a tone of unity, that blends, and (as it were) fuses, each into each, by that synthetic and magical power, to which we have exclusively appropriated the name of imagination. This power…reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities… (BL, Chapter XIV)
But I think it’s safe to say that we don’t typically worry much about oppositions when we “imagine”—in fact what we more typically do is what he calls “fancy.”
This fancy is like a memory game liberated from physical boundaries, using fixed images to create unreal entities. For example, imagining the person you’re calling as the phone rings. Fancy works with what’s unreal and detached or associative: it is “indeed no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space…equally with the ordinary memory the fancy must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association” (BL, Chapter XIII).
Back to that word esemplastic, which sounds a little like a Fimo clay version of empathic. Coleridge explains that it comes from the Greek for to shape into one. Though I think it can be said that empathy does shape after observation, this esemplastic power might operate at a “higher” octave of empathy. Since the “law of association” fixes fancy’s mode, do its parameters limit empathy to the bounds of personal memory? We fancy ourselves in someone’s place, but can the fixations of fancy limit resolution, so that we merely decorate with our projections—like this dude, bedeviled by wind chimes:
It would be smart and updated to study Coleridge’s ideas in an empirical way, with the aid of MRIs and prone poets, and a quick check reveals that, OK, studies have been done, and Coleridge was right—about fancy, at least. The science seems to be teasing out that what we call imagination, disconnected from physical limits, relates to memory (see here as well). Moreover, the process works in reverse: fancying ourselves, to continue with Coleridge’s term, can stimulate memory. It’s clear this faculty is central to human interactions, planning, creativity, and on—this fancy is powerful stuff. But Coleridge insists on more.
Few would confess, “Oh, Colridgean imagination, I use it all the time.” I mean, what is he talking about? He seems to require us to imagine each concept in turn, holding the entity as long as possible until a personal example presents itself. We want a muscle-memory for both skills, not just one. But that understanding already involves memory, and certain pit-falls lie here should the hapless reader mistakenly use fancy to try and model the two terms. To avoid this, one almost wants to avoid imagining the abstractions altogether, even avoid thinking of them. We still need to intuit the way forward, or else bring it down to dirt level, twigs, ants, sap, a plastic cap, a wasp wing—here, in the world of poetic mythology, might we find Imagination?
Turn to the obscure, but worthwhile: the 1962 book, C.M. Bowra’s Primitive Song, has been praised as a rich compendium of indigenous poetry. Bowra’s material is the word-arts of a number of cultures living separate from twentieth century civilization, including Selk’nam/Owano, Inuit, San, Yamana, Vedda, Mbuti, and others. Binary like Coleridge’s system,the survey contrasts two terms, modern imagination and primitive imagination. Briefly, it works out something like this: modern imagination operates when a person forms a mental image without reference to the senses or world. That image may exist, in some other time or place (memory), but the original is at the moment of imagining “not present to the senses.” This sounds a lot like fancy, the faculty imaged in the fMRI scans.
In contrast, Bowra says, “primitive imagination does nothing of this kind. It is resolutely and rigorously concerned not with what is absent in time or place but with what is believed to be present but invisible.” This kind of imagination deals in visions. It connects to the supernatural; it intercepts important forms of entities that dwell in mythologies particular to a culture. It works to lend these entities a “household” familiarity, partly in order to remove barriers to calling upon them in matters of daily predicament. It’s the mental technique that gives authority to supplication. In other words, it helps people.
Such methods are commonly written off as superstition; moreover, the larger contrast between modern/primitive is commonly written of as romanticization of the indigenous. But here it’s a creative process, not a way of life under discussion; I think we can suspend the terminology as inherently fanciful. Meanwhile, consider the empiricism underlying the art form. Bowra painstakingly points out throughout this book that the practitioner of primitive imagination had an exceptionally detailed understanding of the local environment. They knew calendrical bud-phases, and cloud organization; they might pinpoint time of day by combining shadow angles, bird activity, waypoints spot-lit in the sun/shade forests. Against that highly specific field, the song-maker detected messages aiding survival. Without that field, the imaginative radar lost resolution.
Seeking help with all this, I tried some simple diagrams—but I fear that fancy destroyed my perception.
(Does this exist?) If thought follows the curved tracks, then the four inner circles represent the hidden-but-real emerging in those thoughts from an inner store of mythic narratives, sensory skill, and local natural science (pharmacology, hunting, foraging, agriculture, etc.)—and from a place indicating the connectedness of all of these. Seasons, moon cycles, along with some sense of an eclipse calendar emerges.
Similar but less specific than Coleridge’s concept of fancy. If thought follows the curved tracks, then the twelve circle tracks represent thought that is detached from time and space emerging from an infinite source. The overlap in thinking (overlap of the circles) represents the proliferation of forms resulting from associations. This associative material is often specific to a cultural mindframe, even as the imaginative creations are excised from time and space, suggesting that modern imagination’s sense of liberation is an illusion.
(We’re pretty sure this exists, and has been mapped via fMRI.) Similar to modern imagination, but here thoughts are tracks spanning left-right and top-bottom quadrants, suggesting memory of the past transformed into prediction for the future. Nonetheless the thoughts are linearly boundless and come from a center of infinite associative possibilities. But liberation is an illusion, because symmetry—and memory?—controls direction. (Note, in the Lottery spot, how the wind-chime hater loves symmetry). As memories are added, fancy’s possibilities grow. Fancies themselves become memories. Old fancies can be revised, referenced, and re-fancied.
“It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate…yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and unify.” Unless I’m misinterpreting, this yin and yang figure captures the idea quite well. No need for a new diagram? I might only add that Coleridge references art, and so the process “struggles” to unify. Therefore some wobble in this figure might add accuracy. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Two systems, clearly indicating a common form of imagination linked to memory. Two systems, rather divergent on Imagination, but one hinting that empiricism might play a role. To truly imagine, if one must reconcile opposites, one’s thinking must include both empiricism and intution.
This leaves us with the question: do we fancy Imagination? Or does our fancying it, hide it?
When The Seattle Times reported that by 2038, ocean waters off the Washington coast are projected to become so acidic that shelled creatures important to the marine food chain will begin to dissolve—why didn’t the city stop?
Did anyone else who read this imagine an eighty-year-old in 2091 (today, the two-year-old), standing back from the surf and watching the ocean like a dying relative, imagining the old lost ocean life, the food for god’s sake: the Chinook, the Coho, the Sockeye salmon, the crabs, the oysters, all the shellfish, along with the sea butterflies and other pteropods, by then existing only in, what, remnant pockets? What would that eighty-year-old think of the poetry of say, 2011? Will she or he bother to read it at all? Does this person’s car run on carbon pulled from the air, but require by financial contract that it be driven mind-numbing miles five days a week? Does this person eat AquAdvantage Salmon, genetically modified with eel genes and reared in artificial pools near a slowly drying Panamanian river locked up by multiple dams and almost devoid of aquatic life—fish that is nevertheless packaged and sold as de facto Atlantic salmon? If so, who then becomes the Government, and who the Department of Imagination?
I mean, who did those wind chimes chime for, buddy?
5. The Flight from Fancy
Coleridge tells us that any era pushes toward a correction: “It is not, I own, easy to conceive of a more opposite translation of the Greek phantasia and the Latin imaginatio, but it is equally true that in all societies there exists an instinct of growth, a certain collective, unconscious good sense working progressively to desynonymize those words originally of the same meaning…” (BL, Chapter IV).
It’s not something we often think to do: calm the spin of time-and-space-detached material, switch to the more perceptive mode, uncover the hidden in the real, better picture our predicaments. To help ourselves: begin at the pinpoint and, with caution, un-shellac until we find the end of the simple evasions.
It might require the re-learning the local natural environment in great detail. Start with the orchestrations of sound, progress to the colors of things…later, take up the whole system of Imagination as that central mythic material (see diagram one), and claim a household familiarity with its hidden powers. At last, the desynonymizing of the skills fancy and the skills imaginative gains speed. We reach toward a more radically palpable new pattern for thought—and some new brain cells form, too, probably a good thing.
6. Search and Rescue: A Few of Imagination’s Pen Names
The Turbulent Presence. Barbara Guest, Forces of Imagination
“…Imagination the changeling can sting you with its fictive barbs. Coleridge wrote Biographia Literaria in his youth when he was trembling with imaginative power…Imagination lives with the visionary. When you touch its glass there is a ring. The French have a phrase clair-obscure which translates as obscure light and means the mysterious side of thought…It is also the “absent flower” of Mallarme. A turbulent presence. And we must acknowledge this turbulent presence because it is there to save the poem from a disobedient disregard of its own nature.”
Betokening the Invisible. Wallace Stevens, Journals.
“In the cathedral, I felt one presence; on the highway, I felt another. Two different deities presented themselves, and though I have only cloudy visions of either, yet I now feel the distinction between them. The priest in me worshipped one god at the shrine, the poet, another god, at another shrine. The priest worshipped mercy and love, the poet, beauty and might. As I sat dreaming with the congregation, I felt how the glittering altar worked on my senses, stimulating and consoling them, and as I went tramping through the fields and woods, I beheld every blade of grass revealing, or rather, betokening, the invisible.”
The Choice. David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College commencement address.
“The capital-T truth is about life before death. It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time…”
Full version of David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Address.
Turning it over to that collective good sense now, and wishing it good speed.
Susan Parr was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico and grew up in Florida, central Illinois, West Virginia and Ohio. She was educated at Barnard College, and studied at Leningrad State University during the summer of 1988. In 2005 Susan left her job as a self-taught graphic designer and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington. In 2009, her first collection of poems, Pacific Shooter (Pleiades Press), won the Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Prize. Concurrently, she began to gradually lose some sense of hearing.
The poem “Receding Universe Rag,” which appears in this anthology, can be seen as an attempt to construct the hidden puzzle-piece flow of fate. Seen through an X-ray telescope, or plotted chronologically on a chart, failure might have a lovely form. Her barcode poem, “Bootlegs,” appeared graphically at several Seattle galleries as a part of NEPO 5, the 2011 Seattle arts installation. “Receding Universe Rag” is featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Seattle edition. Both books are currently available from your favorite local bookshop or online retailer.