Saturday 3 July 2010

... by its vividness exciting an involuntary movement of imagination and passion

The English essayist and thinker William Hazlitt thought of poetry as `... the language of the imagination and the passions' and went on to define it more carefully as  

...the natural impression of any object or event, by its vividness exciting an involuntary movement of imagination and passion, and producing, by sympathy, a certain modulation of the voice, or sounds, expressing it.

In this lecture, `On Poetry in General', Hazlitt brilliantly pins down some of the essential elements of poetry, and underlines explicitly what poetry is;  textual or verbal and what it is not; visual. This is a crucial distinction to make. Poetry deals explicitly with the translation of sensory and emotional input and creates text, as a means of `modulation of the voice', as output. Nevertheless, great poetry requires a great intensity of observation and reflection and the greatest requires the means to observe and represent nature with an emotional experience that has a higher intensity than `normal'. In the process of such intense observation poets sometimes obtain what William Wordsworth would call a spot of time or James Joyce an epiphany or what Gerard Manley Hopkins called inscape. The visionary scientist Ed Ricketts (1898-1948), making explicit reference to the poem Roan Stallion by Robinson Jeffers called this same quality breaking through.

Writers of poetry, and indeed prose, who achieve epiphany, inscape or breaking through are rare. To achieve this level of excellence requires both the ability to experience intensely and the ability to translate that experience into the linguistic means to represent emotional intensity. Because of the physiological dominance of the visual sense in humans, inevitably much of the input that poets have at their disposal is visual. In fact Marshall McLuhan uses the specific phrase intense seeing to describe the prose style of the artist and writer Wyndham Lewis; `a visionary for whom the most ordinary scenes became the means of intense seeing'. Crucially, although Lewis was an artist, McLuhan is using the expression intense seeing as a synonym for the other non-visual expressions above; epiphany, inscape and breaking through

Regardless of how visual their inspiration and thinking, writers and poets succeed or fail by virtue of their ability to produce a `modulation of the voice'. They do not manipulate visual material nor do they produce visual output; spot of time, epiphany, inscape and breaking through are non-visual expressions.

In contrast to poets and writers, artists and scientists who achieve eminence in their fields have to develop uniquely focused and intense ways of using their visual literacy. This is literally, not figuratively, intense seeing.