Imaginative, not imaginary

I have been thinking about the place that a poem makes in the world, the place that a poem is in the world. My recent reading on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series (see the tail end of this previous post) has led me back to a few of his essays. He felt that good stories–whether fantasy, mythology, allegory, science fiction, or epic narrative–take the reader to threshold spaces that are imaginative, not imaginary.

I think that poetry offers what Plato calls psychagogia— “an enlargement of the soul” in C.S. Lewis’ definition, or see John Joseph Jasso’s dissertation chronicling it as “the idea that rhetoric can lead souls to their own betterment; that is, guide them in an ascent along a metaphysical hierarchy through beauty, goodness, and truth to a fuller participation in being.” Poetry provides such enlargement by permitting the reader to imaginatively undergo transformation via images and places the poem offers, to experience the turn in the poem’s rhetoric, to feel ‘along with’ the poem’s nature. The poem is a threshold at which the reader stands and makes the choice of whether or not to enter.

Granted, that seems a rather allegorical way to think of poetry, but not, I think, an unwarranted perspective.


Lewis, by training a medievalist, believed that we need to read “the canon” or, essentially, any and all great literature of the past, in order to have “something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.” (This is from his 1939 sermon “Learning in War-Time.”) I love reading modern and contemporary literature; but I agree with him that through reading the work of the past, we cross a threshold into a new (to us) perspective. I do not know what the past knows; I have to explore, read carefully, infer, and take nothing for granted. I must take the role of observer before donning the garb of critic. For me, it’s as important to approach literature with beginner’s mind as it is to approach the garden with beginner’s mind. Perhaps this is one reason I have always enjoyed reading history: The past is a place I do not know well and therefore have to find a way to enter into anew.

Lewis continues by noting that the person who reads literature of the past “has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.” Given the times in which we live and the nonsense pouring from the microphones of our age (which are legion), it takes a good deal of sorting to find the beautiful and the good–which do exist–amid the resounding chaos. I do not recommend a full retreat into reading Beowulf, the Illiad, or Tolstoy, but tempering my intake of current media with poems and stories reminds me that I ought to question my basic assumptions and the basic assumptions and perspectives of others, including people who lived long ago in eras and cultures about which I know very little.

A good read inclines me toward the imaginative. Whatever arts it may take to get me there, past the imaginary and into imagination, whatever aesthetic form it takes, I am grateful.

baynesNarniaPauline Baynes’ illustration: Narnia’s lamppost in snow.








Poetry books & the $

April has been designated National Poetry Month by the Academy of American Poets–the campaign was launched in 1996–and because I write poetry and love the art, and read poetry and know poets personally as well as through books, I try to keep the awareness of the month-long love-feast for the crafted word going in whatever small way I can. Hence, if a reader should happen to type the words “National Poetry Month” in the searchbar on this page, said reader would find tagged posts on the subject going back about eight years.

Some years I have endeavored to draft a poem a day for 30 days, some years I have been active giving and performing readings, some years in teaching; it varies on circumstance and energy. This year, I am celebrating by reading more than by writing.

When I buy poetry books, I try to purchase them–if possible–from the author or from the author’s original publisher rather than more cheaply (Amazon, used books, etc.) The author gets no royalties from books bought second-hand, and because few poets are rolling in cash from book sales–and while gaining an audience may be of value–even a small royalty check is a welcome thing, a confirmation of the work in the world.

Best-selling poetry is not necessarily the “best” poetry. Those of us who love the art can contribute in small ways by using the almighty dollar to support the writers we think need to be read.

Here are some poetry books I have bought, or borrowed from my library, in the past two weeks or so. I don’t usually go this crazy with poetry-bingeing; but as I’m not doing much else for Poetry Month this year, I figured I would contribute by doing what I love best: reading books!

Lesley Wheeler, Propagation; Louise Gluck, A Village Life; Grant Clauser, The Magician’s Handbook; Jan Clausen, Veiled Spill: A Sequence; Luisa A. Igloria, The Buddha Wonders If She Is Having a Mid-life Crisis; Aaron Baker, Posthumous Noon; Ian Haight, Celadon; Erica Dawson, The Small Blades Hurt; Brian Turner, Here, Bullet; Margaret Gibson, The Broken Cup. There will be others!

And two notable non-poetry books I loved, Elena Georgiou’s The Immigrant’s Refrigerator, short stories; and Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (a subject close to my own heart–her approach to the book and her history with it ring close to my own experiences).

There will be others, if I have any spare time. I am also planning to read a book by philosopher Andy Clark and a biography of C. S. Lewis and to proofread my brother’s latest paper on Samuel George Morton. If only the weather were warm enough that I could read in the hammock!


image from


Winnowing books

My adult daughter began her clearing out of the childhood bedroom last week. After some fairly easy culling of bits of craft projects, 6th-grade ceramics efforts, broken sea shells, pencil stubs, dried-up bright-colored shaped erasers and outgrown clothing, the bookshelves had to be tackled.

She had no idea how many books she really had. We found them overflowing the shelves, under the bed, on the bedstand, in the toy box and in the closet. Reviewing the stacks was a journey back to her childhood, from YA paperbacks to Goodnight Moon; no fewer than ten oversized books claiming to be The Complete Guide to Horses, the Horse, Horsemanship, Care and Treatment of the Horse…not to mention similar books on dogs, cats, and guinea pigs. All of the Harry Potters and two sets of Chronicles of Narnia, the Time Garden books by Edward Eager, Rumer Godden’s Doll stories and Dover reprints of classic E. Nesbitt books, picture books for toddlers and collections of short stories and poems for children of all ages. Black Stallion novels and Marguerite Henry’s works and the animal novels by Felix Salten.

This experience was a physical and emotional and, I suppose, intellectual transition for her as she begins to look at what her life ahead may be and what texts she will want to keep as guides and as talismans.

A battered copy of The Phantom Tollbooth. Yes. The Runaway Bunny. Yes. Centered Riding. Yes. All of Laurie R. King’s mystery and adventure novels. Yes.

We moved about a third of her books into the give-away pile. Wrenching! Yet of course, what she saved still overflows the available shelf space.

What is the old saying about apples not falling far from the tree?

Lewis, Buber, Dickinson

“Meeting with God does not come to man in order that he may concern himself with God, but in order that he may confirm that there is meaning in the world. All revelation is summons and sending.”   –Martin Buber, I and Thou

I suppose I ought to know this, but I cannot recall reading about whether C.S. Lewis was influenced by Martin Buber’s work, specifically I and Thou. Some of Lewis’ writing seems to suggest that he agrees with the concept of relation: as Buber describes it, the stepping out to meet Thou as Thou, and the insistence that “Man’s [sic] desire to possess God” keeps said man from true relation with God (a point described in The Great Divorce through the allegorical character of the Episcopal Ghost). God has become an “It” rather than a Thou for the Bishop, though he feels he is a true believer, an error made in lesser ways by other characters such as the Big Man.

Many of the students I tutor are writing their final papers for a Theology class that uses Lewis’ texts as a foundation for the course, which is why I’m feeling a bit conversant with Lewis lately, many long years after reading his fiction and his theological writings. And a random quote (above) that I read on a colleague’s email put me in mind of Buber, whose I and Thou reads, often, like poetry….which got me thinking about Emily Dickinson.

How’s that for a train of thought? Perhaps I need to examine the concatenation step by step.

1) Buber, I and Thou, a work deeply influenced by the author’s immersion in non-Western and Cabbalistic “mysteries” (the idea of the radii and the Centre closely parallels the Hindi conceptualization of Indra’s Net, just to name one example). Buber returns to the Western religious traditions throughout, though he mentions the way of Buddha and others as he examines the ever-present confrontation with the Thou of relational experience.

2) Lewis, The Great Divorce. Students interpret this work as one in which the author outlines his agreements and differences with, among other things, ideas about free will stemming from Socratic/Platonic through Augustinian and more modern concepts of Heaven/Hell. They tend to miss the concepts of what makes union/relation significant in the choice to unite with God, but they “get” the gist of the allegory.

3) Emily Dickinson, who more informally and more frequently uses “you” and “I” to explore these depths, but whose contrarian views on soul and spirituality knit the religious with the genuine in complex and exciting ways through the art of language.

An example, in which she does employ the King James Bible diction:


Where Thou art—that—is Home—
Cashmere—or Calvary—the same—
Degree—or Shame—
I scarce esteem Location’s Name—
So I may Come—

What Thou dost—is Delight—
Bondage as Play—be sweet—
And Sentence—Sacrament—
Just We two—meet—

Where Thou art not—is Woe—
Tho’ Bands of Spices—row—
What Thou dost not—Despair—
Tho’ Gabriel—praise me—Sire—

How similar to Buber, those lines “And Sentence—Sacrament—/Just We two—meet—”

and the idea that “Where Thou art not—is Woe—”

Poetry precedes philosophy more often than not, though philosophy may object.