freedom part two: image & imperative

3 March, 2010

Well stuff keeps happening; at the moment it feels like the ground is shifting underneath my feet daily. But I’ll save the latest bit of news for another time, and get back to part two of yesterday’s post.

Throughout this term our tutor’s been encouraging us to really push into our metaphors and images, to inhabit them, to not be content to leave them where they are. I’ve dutifully listened and made notes and inwardly nodded, all the while thinking but how do I do that? What does that actually mean? And then in this particular workshop a couple of weeks ago it all started clicking into place for me.

Here’s the deal, as laid out by our tutor but paraphrased and interpreted by me.

Poetry is all about the dance between image and imperative. The image, or the metaphor, is the germ of the poem. And the imperative is the thought that’s wrapped up in that image. The combination of the two of them is what makes poetry poetry. As I’ve quoted my tutor before, a poem isn’t an atmosphere or a story. It’s a particular kind of thought – something you need to express in terms that are peculiar to you and to what it is you’re trying to say. And they both arrive at once, all tangled up together: an image occurs to you that is just right for expressing something that needs to be said or explored.

This is absolutely what it’s like for me, what it is for me, 100%. But if I’ve never really seen it in such simple terms. It’s always been incredibly nebulous and frustratingly hard to pin down.

But here’s the revelation, for me. Writing poetry is all about the dance between the two things. We’ve been talking about this all term but it’s only now beginning to dawn on me. Which gives you a clear way forward when you’re trying to write. Writing is essentially a continual going back and forward between the image and the imperative, and seeing how they lead one another on.

So you’ve got a first draft. Go back to your images. Push them around. See what they might be saying about the emotional state of the of the poem. Dig a little deeper. What do they say? Are they saying what you want them to?

To be a little more specific, one way of pushing at your images might be to detach yourself entirely from the thought behind the poem – don’t try to describe how you felt or what happened – and just focus on the one image in the poem that you think is at its heart. Let’s say it’s a fortune cookie. This is the bit that’s caught up in your static, somehow. Take it out of its context and start playing with it; write twenty or thirty lines all containing that image, just free-associating and seeing where it takes you. Where does it take you? This, I finally understand, is what our tutor has been saying about really inhabiting your metaphors.

Now go back to your imperative – what it is you’re trying to say. Maybe you’re not exactly sure. That’s ok. Maybe you do. Write it out explicitly and think about how you might get that across in your images. And how have your images and their implications and resonances changed your imperative? Have they helped clarify what it is?

Now go back to your images with your new understanding of what it is you’re trying to say, and push them around a bit more. And then on to the imperative. And so on, and so on…

This is what it’s all about: the images leading the imperative on, helping you work out what it is you’re wanting to say; and the imperative directing and shaping the images. On and on in a continual dance.

Perhaps this sounds basic. Or maybe unintelligible. But it’s been an absolute revelation to me; a sort of falling down on the floor and thanking God moment. For the last six years that I’ve been writing poetry I’ve always felt that it’s like doing a magic trick involving complicated knots behind your back. Every so often you bring your hands out from behind your back and either it’s a tangled mess or you’ve got there – it just feels and looks right, and you can see that the magic has been done (and it does feel like magic, that moment when you know you’ve captured a poem). But while you’re actually trying to do the trick all the action is happening behind your back and so it all seems a bit flailing and arbitrary. What the fuck am I doing? How do I actually get to where I need to go? And that’s what’s always made it so difficult, so agonising.

But now someone’s taken your hands from behind your back and said look, here it is, and here’s the sleight of hand you need to learn. These are the basic moves. Now go. You still have to do the work – and it’s still hard work, and the magic you do is always going to be peculiar to you and thus you have to be your own teacher – but at least now you can see what you’re doing. Image and imperative. Imperative and image. Now go.

So this is making explicit and obvious something that I suppose I’ve always half- or unconsciously known – after all, I’ve been doing it all this time, just behind my back. The impulse to write a poem comes not from wanting to tell a story or convey a feeling, but when an image comes that carries its own weight and meaning and emotional force. I’ve always known this. Just not quite in these terms.

As you can probably tell I’m almost deliriously excited by this. It feels like I’ve been given the keys to the castle. Yes it’s still hard; of course it is. But it’s now a much more focused kind of hard work. Learning to dance, or learning to run perhaps – one foot after the other – image, imperative, and on, and on…

Everything is making so much sense. All the reading I’m doing, all the writing I’m doing. Everyone’s been saying the same thing all along, I just hadn’t quite seen it.

Let’s just hope my writing reflects at least in some small part all this excitement. Otherwise it’s going to be a bit embarrassing.

But I’ll leave the (tentative) answer to that for tomorrow, and a third and even more specific kind of freedom…

4 Responses to “freedom part two: image & imperative”

  1. maggi said

    hey, KV, been thinking about this ever since the weekend. great thoughts,thank you

  2. kifty said

    Sounds a bit like the “Hermeneutical Spiral” from back in the KBCTC days!

  3. […] It’s weird the way things go… the exciting ‘aha’ feeling that I wrote about here seems to have coincided with the complete loss of any half-formed work ethic I may have had, and […]

  4. […] editing process much less mysterious this time round. I think approaching it in terms of looking at image/imperative was really helpful; certainly I did feel like I was pushing much deeper into my work than I did […]

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