I was thinking about an exercise to do with the poetry students today.
For class I asked them to read Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck, Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” and Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” all poems that can lead to spirited discussion of the power of the imagination and how to reach it and use it.
I also did a little reading, thinking, and note-taking on ideas of the imagination. One that always comes back to thought is Coleridge’s distinction of the primary imagination (receiving impressions and perceiving deeply), secondary imagination (an effort of will to make sense of perceptions), and fancy (the aggregation of association of images by superficial resemblance). All three, even the sometimes denigrated fancy, contribute to the poetic process.
Not everyone thinks imagination a good thing–I’ll sometimes hear someone speak of it as a waste of time dreaming about things that aren’t there–but I think most folks value it because it can lead to new thoughts and ideas and potentially to solutions to problems that may have seemed intractable. I see imagination also as a way to keep the mind active, alive, engaged, and ready for new challenges.
So here’s the problem for today’s class–let me know what you think.
Look through the poems we’ve studied, and try to find examples of fancy, primary imagination, and secondary imagination. Explain why you think them good examples. Take your example of primary imagination and try to explain or guess how the poet got to it (i.e., what if it’s an objective correlative rather than a simply description of an experience?). Now, by using first your sensory perception to collect impressions, try to open your secondary imagination to move from those perceptions to an entirely new and fresh observation about the world. (For the impressions I’m going to bring to class an especially fragrant tea bag in case they have trouble recalling strong sensations.)
Yes, I know: that’s a really hard exercise. Don’t worry: I’ll be doing it right along with them. Even if it doesn’t work, it may help them get into the imaginative process to build something unusual, surprising, and pleasing. We always aim for that.