Empathy and the Poetic Imagination (Introduction and Section 1)


Empathy and the Poetic Imagination

by Bruce Bond


There are Selves who unify their expressions by their subjective force; it is only

with the intensity of such subjectivity that one even sees the world of objects.

                                                                                  —Robert Motherwell


For every poet as ventriloquist, there is a planet made of tongues. Birds talk. Chairs respond. The dead rise and give advice, and in so doing they throw their voices into us. Hard to tell at times just who is talking, where the font of agency begins. What we do know is that the poetic imagination could not exist without some sense of reciprocity in its chamber of thrown voices. The poem thus is a kind of doll that surprises the child with what it says, with the ongoing dialogue between her inner depths and outer reaches. The poem’s cave that takes some voice into the dark returns that voice in a new inflection. What is the human throat if not a cave? In the echo chamber of poetic resonance, poems articulate something fundamental about the reciprocal and seminal power exchange in all language. We speak and so are spoken, and what we speak about in turn speaks of us.

Leave it to the poetic imagination to see the dead as willful, creative, slipping their desires into us. Those of a less superstitious nature are bound to reject a ghost as literal, but they still might embrace the poetic wonder and heartbreak of the haunted dream they remember as they wake. They might savor the clarity dreams give to the relational pull of their deepest affections. Likewise even the most superstitious must register, consciously or unconsciously, that if we could know beyond doubt that the dead talk, the dream sheds a little of its awe and wonder, a little of its force. It would surrender its faith, its love/hate relation to the real. Poems cannot exist without the pull of the real and the push of the unreal. The same is true of metaphors more largely, one side of which pins itself to some intuited ground. Magic cannot be ordinary, though poetry thrives on the tension that both would and would not make it so.

If a poet’s ventriloquism were not tempered by attention to the real, if the real did not in turn throw its voice into the imagining subject, the world would be voiceless or its voice would be displaced, appropriated, subverted. Projection would overwhelm its vessel with pre-existent needs and so lapse into something less transformative, into the aesthetic narcissism perhaps, the decadence in which artifice devours the vision it would serve. On the other hand, if the poet were merely passive, literal, unassertive in her formal rendering, the dead would lie down in their graves once again. Chairs would sit silent. The world would slowly bleed dry, drained of the radiance of felt relations. It would lack the power of eros that first summoned us to the world, that taught us the imagination’s most fundamental vocation: to make the universe into something we can love. The cold rationality of science may get things done, but it cannot fall in love with science. Where science gets strange, it invites us in as strangers. It binds us, drawn to the limits of our knowledge, more closely to the material world by virtue of its enigmas, its distance bridged by awe and speculative desire.

In truth, it is hard to image the extremes of subjectivity or objectivity since our experience, bound by the principles of each, must negotiate the vast possibilities between. Those deeply attentive to the variety of our dreams tend to maintain some ambivalence about their power, whether they bring us closer to the world or shield us from its harsh bright light. A poet’s imaginative assertions, however underplayed, may inspire similar ambivalence, for although poems call upon a sense of craft that dreams lack, both poetry and dream depend upon a sense of mediating the unknown or, more paradoxically, the unknowable. Both imply a vehicle, a semiotics, a progressive syntax of signs, the elusive logic of symbol speaking to symbol. Both “mediate” something that appears beyond expression but which, in spite of our ignorance, must suggest the gravitational pull of the real. Without such gravity, the search for meaning is frivolous. Without doubt, the search cannot exist.

Thus when Jacques Lacan famously reiterates that “the unconscious is structured like a language,” he is quick to note the importance of the word “like” and what it does not, cannot, claim:

You see that by still preserving this “like” [comme], I am staying within the bounds of what I put forward when I say that the unconscious is structured like a language. I say like so as not to say. (p. 48)

Both poems and dreams deploy a language that appears to articulate something beyond them, something that cannot be represented without the residue of doubt that makes oneiric faith possible. With regard to the power and significance of this faith, not all dreams are equal. Some are paranoid nonsense. Some tell us we are hungry. Others register suppressed or deeply awakened insight. The defensive boundaries relax, and the subject-objects of memory and desire come into greater conversation to coax us into greater recognitions. Similarly, poems may be either exercises in self-indulgence or forces that expand the felt awareness that seems indigenous to a poem’s origin in its dialogue with the world.

The question therefore remains: if a perceiver’s imaginative commitments invest the world with value, with eros as an articulation of values, at what point does the perceiver risk an overvaluation of imaginative subjectivity? Is it still eros if, in time, it comes to worship eros? Is falling in love with love not a form of narcissism and thus the end of love?   Implicit in these questions is the larger question as to whether a poem can succeed if the subject matter of the poem narrows to contemplate itself merely, its own imagination. In an absolute sense, this is impossible, but relatively speaking, the polar extremes of aesthetic over-indulgence and barren literalism figure as equally dull. Wallace Stevens, obsessed as he was in making a case for “the supreme fiction,” argues in “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” the imagination must register the pressure of the real, that elusive world beyond its subjectivity, or it relinquishes its “vitality.” Moreover it becomes frivolous. It is not enough that the external summons to the imaginations is simply some vague social sphere, relativized and ungrounded. If that world does not register affectively as real, however imperfectly modeled as such, its summons is weak.

The difficult question of degree bears on the elusive nature of taste which, in the context of art, often resonates as the province of aesthetics merely, as if aesthetic concerns could be met or bracketed off from epistemological and ethical ones. It remains hard to imagine however just what “taste” could mean if not some intuitive negotiation of multiple values, some conversation involving what is said, how it is said, and whether it is worth saying. Characteristic lapses in taste, such as sensationalism and sentimentality, fail as artificial in part because they are artless. In both cases the affect appears monotonal, manipulative, imposed and thus, however grounded in fact, not quite genuine in modeling the real. Their aesthetic failure is therefore embedded in a perceived epistemological one and, by virtue of their manipulative self-indulgence, an ethical one as well.

Given the vast range of artful stances toward the real, the words “aesthetic” and “aestheticization” are often vague and insufficient as terms to describe the level of attention and authenticity in imaginative assertions. For both aesthetic and epistemological reasons, the sentimental and sensational do not provide credible and compelling models of the complexity of inner life. They fail the demands of a poem to answer to often competing values and so to reanimate the poetic imagination as something deeply conflicted at heart, as a form of creative play called to meaningful difficulty, to empathy and understanding. To define what empathy could be in a poem is difficult indeed, since the very act of reading or writing has some sense of voyeuristic distance built into it, and yet the tension that empathic listening gives to a poem remains critical to its power, a quality of speaking and being spoken, of going more deeply inward as if somewhere in there were the path to others.

Till Human Voices Wake Us

TS EliotIn his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” when T.S. Eliot famously states that art does not have a personality to express but rather a medium, he does not argue against the oneiric transformations that seem so suggestive of one’s character. Nor does he characterize imaginative powers as intrusive and narcissistic. On the contrary, he wishes to create some distance between art and artist and so argue for language as something other than a mere transparency through which we would see the poet behind it. The persuasive and useful part of his argument positions itself not against “personality” but against the myth of art as merely passive “expression” for the personality as some essence that precedes imaginative form. It is not personality so much that art escapes as the naïve conception of “personality” as something fully constituted and thus capable of dominating its medium:

 The point of view which I am struggling to attack is perhaps related to the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul: for my meaning is, that the poet has, not a “personality” to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. (p.10)

In asking us to reconsider the association between the poetic imagination and autonomous selfhood, the above passage registers more sensitivity the difficulty of his subject than Eliot’s questionable metaphor of “escape.” His notion that poetry “is not an expression of personality, but an escape from personality” relies ironically upon a reification of the boundaries that it would critique. The metaphor of escape implies a movement across such a boundary. It suggests a “substantial unity” of some kind, a delineated sense of personhood, however contextualized within some larger consciousness. What Eliot seeks is perhaps less an escape from the walls of the personal than a radical dismantling of those conceptual walls, a calling into question their metaphysical sustainability.

Eliot’s most obvious point is that, in poetry, the imagination, as mediated, must negotiate the collective, objective, and historical tensions embedded in form and diction. Given social context, a poem stands in relation to a tradition, whether consciously or not, and greater consciousness empowers one to move that tradition forward, to find what is meaningfully new to the conversation. A less obvious assumption suggests that the imaginative craving for the “peculiar and unexpected” might mitigate against the more naïve ways in which poets perceive their work as “personal.” The need to “make it new” suggests that poetry’s medium, as more assertive in its energy, locates its authority in the dialogue between tradition and individual subjectivity.

If we see in Eliot’s hyperboles an enthusiasm for the imaginative order of a tradition that cannot possibly be orderly, he likewise expresses a healthy bit of subversive will, both in his rhetorical defiance and his affinity with the revolutionary inwardness and evocative techniques of French Symbolism. The example of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufock” embodies this spirit in its reliance on the deeply conflicted poetic image, the image saturated in unconscious energy at the same time that it critiques the alienated solipsism of imaginative excess:

 I should have been a pair of ragged claws

Scuttling across the floor of silent seas. (l. 73-74)

The self-hatred and anger that claw at Prufrock register his failure in the social sphere, not only because that sphere appears superficial, but because he is no less so. In so doing, the poem explores something of the possibility of inward, imaginative excess that subordinates women to their mythic or archetypal value relative to the speaker’s desire. Thus, if they appear, they do so as fragmented bodies and bits of conversation, never as clear subjectivities in their own right. They become the correlative to mermaids, subordinate to projection, dream stuff incapable of genuine coupling. Prufrock’s particular imagination as the expression of a crippled and thereby inflated ego consumes its world in the projection of its needs. It cries out for meaning, which is to say a relational ground in either the metaphysical or social realm, but pursues it by assertively and imaginatively recasting the given nature of the world in an attempt to further reify, articulate, and structure his threatened sense of self.   Human voices, as opposed to mythic ones, are dangerous, precisely because their desiring subjectivities remind Prufrock of the vulnerabilities and limits of his own. Taken to an extreme, Prufrock’s symptoms verge on a kind of paranoia wherein the weak ego exposes the self to the assaults of the unconscious.   If such a person throws his voice into the world with the ardor of a conspiracy theorist, it is in part because the forces of alterity and their hallucinatory displacements are so strong.

This said, to critique the character of Prufrock is not to critique the poem, and images such as the scuttling claws speak intimately of universals. Thus the same imaginative projections that alienate Prufrock from his world connect us to his. Moreover they, as rising to the demands of poetry’s medium as inventive, peculiar, multiply evocative, articulate and expand a collective sense of wonder and insight into the way consciousness works and does not work. Representations of pathological narcissism in poetry include us in ways that the narcissist does not. In a poem, we, as readers, as voyeurs at the clarifying distance required to read, are not cornered by the narcissist. By virtue of the mediation that Eliot honors, we are invited to explore the conceptual and affective complexity that is an element of form. Irrationality in poetry makes room for us. It draws us as readers both inward and outward at the same time, empowered to participate in a construction of meaning made possible by the familiar in the peculiar, the clear in the distorted, the daylight in the partially eclipsed. While Prufock may not model empathy, he might well solicit it, not because he meets our ethical criteria, not because we would chose him as a friend, but because his inner life resonates as authentically and powerfully rendered, which we can only recognize as such because that life resonates, consciously or not, with our own.