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‘Poetry […] is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular’ (Aristotle)
the faculty or action of forming new ideas, or images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.
Mary Gaitskill writes that one of the purposes of writing is “to give form to the things we can sense but not see” (155). It is the job of the imagination to reach those things we feel, or sense, or somehow know, and make them tangible to the people we are trying to connect with. For me, art is always about connecting with people. It is about the act of reaching out and allowing something- personal, political, social- to be touched by another person. To imagine is a transformative act. It transforms sensation into something concrete, which in turn is transformed by the imagination of the receiver. For example, if I feel love and write a poem about it, what a reader will take from my poem is not necessarily what I meant by it- and when that reader passes it on, the next may take something different again from it. The feeling and then the words are continuously transformed by the power of the imagination of each link in the chain. Imagination is what allows the connection to be made, between the feeling of the artist and the experience of the consumer.
Making a feeling or sensation tangible can be done in a number of ways. For example, an abstract painting gives a definite form to something that can be sensed but not seen. The form it gives may not be immediately recognisable (a jug, a tree, a bowl of fruits) but it relays the sensation that the artist felt and tried to grasp, and gives the viewer the chance to form his or her own sense from it. A friend of my dad, Malgorzata Szydlowska, made a painting called “Rain”. “Rain” is an abstract collection of colourful lines drawn and slashed, one over the other, in oil paint. Rather than presenting a “realistic” portrait of rain as drops falling from the sky, colourless or reflecting colours from the world, “Rain” gives form to the artist’s experience of rain: streaks of colour, flashes of light, bold bright strokes. This is imagination in action- taking a sensation just barely tangible and turning it into something visible and visceral.
Though we tend to associate it with them, it isn’t only artists, musicians and writers who possess and exercise the power of imagination. I would argue that we all do- from mundane worries about what will happen if we miss the last train, to great strokes of scientific brilliance, we are all always imagining. Without the power of imagination we would have no electric lights, no televisions, no guitars, no popcorn. Nobody would ever have had the idea of creating those things. It is only by understanding that there are things we do not know (what happens if you heat up popping corn?), can not understand (where do we come from?), and have not tried that we are inspired to create anything, from abstract art to cheese on toast.
If I knew everything, I would not write poems or stories or blog posts just to express what I already knew. If I understood everything I wouldn’t want to try to explore it all in these various media. If I had tried everything, there would be no need to keep trying to connect, to reach out, to understand. Imagination, mine at least, is driven by the desire to relate and to explore.
Imagine a world without imagination?
For other thoughts on imagination by me, see:
the flip side of an active imagination when dealing with mental health problems