Sunday, March 25, 2012

Five tips from The Bard on the Powers and Pitfalls of Imagination

Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And 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.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

~ William Shakespeare, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream

After a recent frenzy of ideas that spilled out in a series of excited conversations and emails in one busily fruitful afternoon, my manager asked me with gentle amusement, “Kelly, does the disk ever stop spinning?”  At first I had no idea what he was talking about. Disk? What disk?

Oh. Right. Embarrassed chuckle. Me… or rather, my mind. No, sir, the disk never stops. Not ever.
I admit it: I am an idea hamster.  Even more problematic, I am a poet, a lover of words, and at times quite mad.

I find this passage from A Midsummer Night’s Dream particularly useful in validating these aspects of my personality, while also providing some useful lessons from lovers, madmen, and poets about the power and pitfalls of Imagination. With lovers and madmen, according to  the words Shakespeare puts in Theseus' mouth, there is no rationality brought to bear on the powers of the imagination. The seething brain has boiled over and has become of no practical use. In fact, in the case of the frantic lover, imagination without comprehension brings danger and destruction to entire nations. 
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:

Although lunatics, lovers, and poets are “all compact” when it comes to the question of imagination, Theseus acknowledges a slight departure where poets are concerned. While still in a “fine frenzy,” the poet is given the remainder of this passage as credit to the positive workings of the imagination.

Here are five tips on creativity extracted from Shakespeare via Theseus:

1.      Actively notice everything.  Constantly on alert, the poet not only watches but seeks out the connections between earth and heaven, finite and infinite, known and unknown.

The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

This “glance” is neither passive nor whimsical. Those whose work requires the constant creation of something from seemingly nothing are disciplined about being ever watchful. They notice everything. They read voraciously. They look and look and look until their eyeballs burn and – at last – they see the pattern of the knowable unknown. 

2.      Write it down.  And what they see, the poets record.

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes… 

Poets know that in the business of bodying forth, imagination must be captured.  You cannot rely on memory to give shape to airy nothing.  If you are serious about this creativity business, keep many means of jotting down close to hand. The act of pushing the pen (or keyboard) is the only reliable one I know of that can begin to give shape to unknown forms. It is not a mystery – it is simply the hard work of a frenzied brain.

3.      Be specific.  A general concept can be interesting, but put it on a map with a street name and a cast of named characters, and your audience will be spellbound.

…and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.

Isn’t “Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt” infinitely more delicious than “his lover’s face in any random location?” Imagination requires specificity of the recorder.

4.      Rejoice. The creative act is nothing short of incarnational joy. It is where apprehension and comprehension meet.

Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;

Unlike lunatics and lovers, poets apprehend in order to comprehend, which leads to a deeper and wider experience of knowing. Entering into joy through the imagination leads to a comprehension of a joy-Giver, and ultimately, to a sense of gratitude and renewed purpose.   

5.      Don’t take yourself too seriously. Lest those of us in the business of “making stuff up” for a living get too high an opinion of ourselves, Theseus ends his complimentary lines about poets with this reminder of the pitfalls of imagination:

Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!

Many moons ago, in the middle of the dot-com boom, I had the privilege of working on the management team of a hi-tech start up. I was shy then, but ambitious, and the hamster brain was already on the treadmill. My boss sensed that I had much to say in creative meetings, but I was holding back. He told me something I have never forgotten: “Put all your ideas on the table. Nine out of ten of them will be terrible, and the rest of us will tell you. But that one gem is the one thing we need more than anything.”

Nine times out of ten, I will see a bear where there is a bush. Nine times out of ten, my colleagues and I will laugh at my hamster brain gone wild. But if I don’t say it to some cooler-headed colleagues, I will never know.

And neither will they.

Immortal Poems of the English Language, Edited by Oscar Williams (Pocket Books, 1952)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Flying in the Face of What Devils May Do: C. S. Lewis' Re-Adjustment and the Defeat of Despair

My gratitude goes out to speaker, writer, and teacher Andrew Lazo for sharing his insights this week on the poetry of C.S. Lewis. Andrew is a scholar specializing in Lewis and the Inklings, and a force to be reckoned with. Do reckon with him here:


Image of Andrew by
Lancia E. Smith
In the Face of What Devils May Do: C. S. Lewis' Re-Adjustment and the Defeat of Despair

By Andrew Lazo

Many thanks to Kelly for asking me to guest in this spot, and furthermore for asking for something on C. S. Lewis.  I have been grappling recently with a cycle of unpublished sonnets by Joy Davidman, Lewis’ future wife, and in so doing have delved back again into Lewis’ sometimes troubling, sometimes transcendent poetry. When her kind request came in, I immediately knew what I wanted to write about: Re-Adjustment.  Holly Ordway based her own Pain Sonnet 9: Unmaking Language on the tenth line that reads, “For devils are unmaking language. We must let that alone forever.”

Lewis closes his poem with a mirroring dewdrop, which of course echoes William’s Blake’s “to see a world in a grain of sand.” And the dew, with its promise of freshness and its significant power to show us all reality, does little to undo the pessimistic tone of the poem.  And this tone forces me to a rare state of affairs: I must disagree with Lewis. But not quite yet, for there is much to this poem that can call us to live well and even to hope in the face of our generation.

Before disputing with Lewis’ pessimistic assessment, I want with full voice to agree with his call to “[u]proot [our] loves, one by one, from the future.” Yes, to treating our loves with care.  Yes, oh yes, to pulling them up from a future that will in all likelihood bear little resemblance either to our deepest hopes or our fondest fears. How vividly Lewis points us to the vital reality that “the Present is the point at which time touches eternity.” This is what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. calls “the fierce urgency of now.” This is what T. S. Eliot calls “the awful daring of the moment’s surrender.” This very moment, as we read and write, as we remember these words and go about our days, this is the only moment we have. And while we cannot do all things today, this moment, we can do some things. One thing. And we can do it well.

I also agree that forces have arrayed themselves against language.  Devils indeed, and unmaking not only words but the meanings behind. One deep irony that troubles my days comes from thinking about how, in this world based on text, language seems to slip away. The forces I fight from day to day in the classroom and at the keyboard seem all too subtly yet effectively well-armed in their attempt to silence good words, or make off with meaning. I don’t decry emoticons, texts, and tweets, but I despair if this is all we have left. And here’s where I believe that Lewis got it all wrong.

For I regularly find myself in the warm company of “a posterity of gentle hearts.” My friends and I have picked up the signal ringing out, however faintly, from Lothlorien, from Avalon, from the glad and golden courts of Cair Paravel. The echoes come clearly in our eager ears, and we can understand their story. Lewis’ pessimism loses me here; perhaps he has in this poem given way to a carrion comfort of despair that I (and all those I love best) reject out of hand. 

Lewis is right that now offers us some shining wet reflections of all we yet can find. He’s right that moments, though small, offer sometimes disproportionate significance as they make up the tiny puzzle-pieces of these our lives we long to live well. I would argue that Lewis’ despair fails to serve us—but more so, it fails to convince me. For all those with whom I surround myself do understand their story. We read them, argue about them, and then write some ourselves.  Poetry, in measurable and meaningful ways, certainly continues to thrive, and makes eyes shine. I count as the most precious hours of my life those I spend laughing and fighting and creating and reciting and singing and dancing, all as responses to their stories.

Yes. Devils are unmaking language. But my fellowship and I refuse to believe that’s the end of the story—for we’ve read the right sort of books, and we know down to our bones how this and all stories must end. All the more, we who can understand a story have busied ourselves re-making it, stitching it back together, sub-creating, and creating more joy as poignant as grief. And in such celebration of the grace of language, and flying in the face of whatever devils may do, we place ourselves patiently, hopefully, faithfully on the side of the angels.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Honoring Japan with small words

Laid waste on this journey.
My dreams wander scattered
through desolate fields.

~ Matsuo Basho (c. 1644-94)


I pause with Japan to mark one year from yesterday since the earthquake and tsunami that laid waste seaside villages.  

The pictures and news stories are still so clear in my mind, scattered as if through Basho’s desolate fields: a boat perched ridiculously on top of a house; an injured dog discovered by his mate on a stranded beach, a first sign of hope; a distraught mother, her baby snatched from her hands and swept out to sea just moments before.

As these images came rushing in on the tide of the 24/7 news cycle, I wept. I had come to feel a connection with many poets from Japan over the past few years, through my exploration of modern haiku poets on twitter (I tweet poetry and follow other Twitter poets under @haikunut).

I learn by doing, and back in 2008-ish (can't quite remember when) I wanted to learn what the fuss was about with this thing called "Twitter." My goal was to learn about this social media tool and how to use it, not to develop ties or even really to grow in the writing craft (though that seemed a nice potential perk at the time).  Be forewarned if you have yet to tweet with the poets – they will capture your heart.

So naturally, back last March, when the news became too much, I turned to what had become a form of release -- tweeting poetry. Here is one short poem I wrote after the disaster:

I see a boat
on a house
half a world away
and hug my son
tighter to my chest

Writing seemed at the time an anemic gesture, but it was what I had to offer to the journey laid waste.  My fellow haiku poets in the north east towns and villages of Japan would never be the same.  I honored them then and do so now the only way I have ever known how: with small words.


Classic Haiku: The Greatest Japanese Poetry From Basho, Buson, Issa, Shiki and Their Followers, Edited and Introduced by Tom Lowenstein (Duncan Baird Publishers, London, 2007)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Guest Blog: Scott Morgan: If Only...

Writers write. But a writer who writes to writers about writing, who cheers your writerly soul and shouts practical advice from the margins like your favorite hard-talking good hearted coach… now that is someone special.

I was fortunate enough to see retweets of Scott Morgan (@write_hook) floating through my Twitter stream some fine day in the past twelve months as I was wrestling with another bout of writer angst. I was instantly energized to get back in the game.

Scott and I have swapped blogs this week. Scott’s blog – Write Hook: Write for the Jugular – provides great counsel to, from, and for professional writers. That said, I have yet to read a post that would not be of benefit to anyone who seeks to improve their facility with the written word. Check him out.

For All Nine, Scott shares what stirs him about Rudyard Kipling’s If.

If Only ...

When it comes to the written word, there are exactly two pieces of writing that give me the chills. One is The Letter To Mrs. Bixby, written by President Lincoln during the Civil War. The other is Rudyard Kipling's If.

The funny thing is that unlike President Lincoln, Rudyard Kipling never wrote another thing I like. Kipling wrote volumes and volumes of poems and stories and books in addition to If, and not one of them sticks in my head, nor means a thing. To this day, I read If and it moves me to tears.

The truly infuriating thing is that the poem is so good, the only way to describe it with any justice is to use hackneyed twaddle that any frustrated high school sophomore would use to tell a girl that he would die for her. So forgive me if I sound trite. The very totality of this poem makes it impossible to narrow it down to anything as simple is "I loved your opening line."

Perhaps the wisdom of If is a reflection of Kipling's age when he wrote it. Perhaps my growing fondness for it is a reflection of my aging self as well. I'm well past my 20s (and somewhat past my 30s), and as the realities of the world and making my way through it have scrubbed the shine off my dewy youthful optimism, the delicacy with which Kipling explains the price of adulthood is staggering.

The truly sublime thing about this poem is that it is always best in your own voice, in your own head. I've read If a thousand times, but I have never heard it recited particularly well. To me this is the zenith of the written word, the intersection of the universal and the personal. Countless men (more so than women, I have found) internalize this poem and commit all 32 lines to memory. And yet each hears it differently. Experiences it differently. Responds to it differently.

If is magic. In it is the secret of life; the voice of the common man, and the voice of God. It is the universe, in all its aged wisdom and the promise of new life. It is a guide path through the morass; a map that can be referenced any time, from anywhere, that always leads me to safety. And that place of safety is always within myself.

To say that I aspire to write this well is to say that I aspire to breathe and laugh and love. And yet I take comfort from the fact that I never could. I do not compare myself to Rudyard Kipling, as a writer or a sage. And, in truth, I don't really want to write a poem like If.

But what If gives me to aim for is the unreachable ideal. The drive to connect, to resonate. The desire to leave this world with something that says "I was here. And it mattered that I was."

And if I can smile as my hopes for transcendence come to nothing, I will have lived up to the ideal that If lays out. It's a tall order for sure. But would it be worth it if it were any other way?