Baby hair with a woman’s eyes
I can feel you watching in the night
All alone with me and we’re waiting for the sunlight
When I feel cold, you warm me
And when I feel I can’t go on, you come and hold me
It’s you… And me forever
—Hall & Oates
I. The Materiality of the Imagination
Let’s start first with a question: What do you think about the imagination? Is it a place that you go in your mind to create new ideas freely? Is it a place you fear? Is it both?
People often talk of the imagination as if it is one thing for everyone, a place without context, a specific, singular landscape that we all go to, on our own. This kind of talk sometimes makes people feel that if they don’t have immediate access to this single place, they can’t engage in imaginative thinking, which disempowers infinite possible new ways of seeing the world. Everyone has their own imaginative landscapes, populated with very particular experiences, and when people open the door and let us into those places—through poetry, other forms of art, and other new invention—it helps each of us connect with our own imaginations. It also helps us see the doors that connect all of our imaginations together. Because the shared imagination is both specific and universal, real and unreal, profane and holy, a place of both rest and unrest, that we all can go to and share with others when we make new things.
The shared imagination engages fully with the material world. That’s the other trick to it. The imagination is a physical space that one shares with other people in and through poetry. In a poem we make a haunted land to mimic this haunted one, and that we populate this land with physical reality to connect this world to the next (to other ones).
When we read poems, what is important about reading them, is what we create within the brains of others. This is what makes the possibility of a world past this one possible.
A belief in a material, shared imagination is important to me as a poet, because I want not just to recreate this one through poetry. I want a neverending, generative universe that poetry can help create.
One of my favorite poems by Alice Notley goes like this:
All my life,
Since I was ten,
I’ve been waiting
to be in
this hell here
All I’ve ever
When I first heard the poem it was because my friend Laura Solomon had put it on a mix CD she made for me from Paris when I was living in Boston in 2005. She put it right before a song by Amadou & Mariam called “Sénégal Fast Food,” so that when I listened to the whole CD, the Notley poem was like an introduction to the song, which not knowing French, seemed to me to be about a late night eating fast food in Senegal. But upon reading the translation of the lyrics to the song, I later learned was about falling in love and getting married in a rush, asking the question over and over, “What time is it in Paradise?” Rushing into the question of timelessness.
In my mind, when I heard Notley reading the poem in the 1987 recording, I saw her at the St. Marks Poetry Project, reading it to a roomful of people, telling them all, “I have waited to be here with you, this chamber of poets and seers, this hell, that now I am a part of forever, and by the way, it is hell after all—all this gossip and dark living.” I think I saw her in this place because in a recording of my favorite poem by her late husband, Ted Berrigan, called “Red Shift,” he is reading this poem in the Poetry Project. In my mind, the two conflate timelessly, almost at the same reading. But later, I learned, too, that Notley was reading her poem “All My Life” in a real city called Buffalo, a place very charged for me with emotions, but that is, for many people, its own kind of hell.
Much of my belief in a shared, material imagination has to do with my belief in ghosts and a hope and horror that they really do exist.
Even though I know that Notley speaks her poem, wherever she does, to a room full of poets, telling them that she has waited to be with them, and now she is, reading her poem, at a real poetry reading. I think she is also telling them, “Here I am in the space of the imagination, where you are, too.”
Poems are special because they make a space, a real space, where we can call go. This place is a city called The Imagination. It is whatever you want it to be, half-hell, half-dreamworld, half-Paradise, half-light and ashes, but poems are the special things that make it real forever.
Let me ask you another question: Have you ever been there?
II. A Belief in Ghosts
My whole life, I had an inkling that there were things like ghosts and that maybe some people were able to actually see them. But up until a few summers ago, I had never actually seen a ghost.
For two summers, I slept in a haunted house, while teaching poetry there through a writing program. The teachers and I had all sorts of encounters with the spirits in the house, but for me, seeing the ghost during my first summer there was the most important event. Nothing other than seeing a ghost has been as instrumental in my thinking about the materiality of the shared imagination and its importance in poetry.
The house has a long history of ghosts. Legend has it that a girl’s shoe was found in the wall. A guard had quit years ago after so many sightings of a tiny girl screaming for help that he could no longer bear it. While I stayed in the house with other teachers and friends, we all heard children running through the ceiling of the abandoned rooms upstairs, screams and voices, computers charged for no reason, locked windows that blew open, hidden pills, broken cabinets, and misplaced plastic necklaces. One teacher channeled an angry spirit in her writing, who simply stated, “I am stuck here.”
All of these experiences are things that could be explained away, but with several people experiencing them, we started to talk about them freely. When some visiting artists came to stay at the house for a few days one summer, we shared the stories with them, too.
Most people I choose to tell about my belief in ghosts are believers or at the very least susceptible to the idea. I am careful not to tell people who are going to laugh it off or call me crazy. As a poet, I have learned to be OK with what my imagination might bring to me.
When people call other people crazy I don’t get mad, I get bored. When people tell me ghosts don’t exist, I just get bored.
Laura Kelly Leuter, a famed devil-hunter, who has devoted her life to looking for the physical evidence of a being lovingly called, the Jersey Devil, has written of non-believers in her plight:
Until someone proves that there isn’t something out there, I will continue to believe that there is, and I will also continue my efforts to find proof that the Jersey Devil does in fact exist. So there.
When these visitors were at the house, a few of us told them about the ghosts. It felt natural enough. I didn’t think so much to censor myself, because the ghosts just seemed real. I have long believed (and longed to believe) what Pablo Picasso told me: “Everything you can imagine is real.”
One night a teacher and I arrived home late from dinner. We heard someone (or something) calling to us from the fruit garden right outside the house. I thought I had heard, “Dottie, come here.” We got very scared and ran in the house, clutching our fashion-forward neon leather purses to our chests.
We talked each other into going back out and seeing who was there. “Who is there? Who is there?” my friend shrieked. We heard “It is Adeline.”
Adeline was an old owner of the house. We walked into the garden with shaky knees only to find not the apparition of Adeline, but the visiting artists laughing at us. I didn’t find it funny.
One of the visitors (let’s call him Demon from now on) proceeded to tell me I needed to see a psychiatrist. After about two minutes, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to control my anger in any sort of good way, so I went inside, happy to be in the arms of the real ghosts in my room, not among the placid thoughts of living demons.
Samuel Johnson has said of ghosts:
It is wonderful that five thousand years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.
All arguments, logical and steeped in what we know of science, can easily refute any belief in ghosts. The most salient argument that ghost-believers have is that they have “seen one.” And the imaginative space of a being having seen something—let alone a dead spirit—is not something that we ever fully believe in. But why not?
As a poet, I think a lot about belief and in the belief of what my mind will bring to me. There are a lot of things that enter my mind that I choose to translate into language. All poems contain images and these images have been in the poet’s brain and hang in the balance always, to be given to the reader upon reading. And in a poem images have weight so that you cannot help but believe in them.
Emily Dickinson has said of belief:
On the subjects of which we know nothing … we both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour, which keeps believing nimble.
The thing about ghosts is that once they have entered your imaginative space, there is no way not to believe in them. As I mentioned, I once actually saw a ghost.
III. The Sighting of the Ghost
The poet, John Weiners wrote, “I can only say real happiness yields from the world of poems. And its practitioners are secret, sacred vessels to an ancient divinity.”
As I mentioned before, I think poetry is special because it connects us to the imagination, another world, or perhaps the other world, which is a physical space, that poems interact with and encounter.
In his book, The Imaginary, Sartre writes that when a writer creates something, he or she has “visions” and that these visions are made into a very real space in the brain.
Sartre’s idea seems to me very much in line with what Dickinson writes of in her poem about death, that “after great pain, a formal feeling comes.” She writes:
After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
As Dickinson writes, when a person dies, after pain, comes the formal feeling of cold, to let go of the person as a being, into a space where all voices commingle, as “Freezing persons, recollect the Snow.” To have a vision of a feeling is a type of formality. Perhaps poets are the beings on this earth that can go into the freezing place and bring out the pieces of snow. Something that Bernadette Mayer appropriated for her translation of Catullus #48, which she describes as a formal field of kissing of being in love, a place where one kiss is never enough, where one kiss is just never enough snow.
I think the formal field is the land of light and ashes, a place of visions, a place where as Jack Spicer wrote about in his lecture, “Dictation and ‘A Textbook of Poetry,’” the dead speak from, where a poet receives radio messages from, a place which, as he writes, might be an “outside,…an id down in the cortex which you can’t reach anyway…galaxies which seem to be sending radio messages to us with the whole of the galaxy blowing up just to say something to us.”
In comparing himself rather snarkily to Byron, Keats wrote, “He describes what he sees – I describe what I imagine – Mine is the hardest task.”
I tend to agree with him.
When I first got to the house the first year, I couldn’t sleep for about two weeks. Maybe I slept an hour or two here and there. I couldn’t sleep, because I felt certain something was in the room with me.
It sounds crazy to say all of this to you, I know, but after a while I started talking to the presence in my room. In words, in my imaginative space, she spoke back.
She conveyed whom she was and that she liked my jewelry and just wanted to hang out sometimes. This made sense, I mean, have you seen my jewelry? Also, because I would often see my jewelry in odd places, after being locked away in a drawer or cabinet. She told me she had lived in the 16th century. In my mind, I had the vision of her as a teenager with long blond hair. I was absolutely certain that this is what she looked like.
For fear of seeming crazy, I didn’t tell anyone about our communication. But once it happened, I felt free and slept like a baby.
A few days after, my student told me that she had something important to tell me. She said that when she was in the workout room the night before a sort of creepy-looking blond teenager tried to turn off her treadmill. But that when she went to touch the girl’s hand and implore her to stop, the hand and the girl disappeared into the air.
I told my student about my encounter with what was likely this same entity. We both felt better. We both shared a belief in another dimension of being. And we had both interacted with the same ghost. There was a comfort in this shared reality, this shared imagination.
This is probably the opposite of how one should feel in that situation. Were we both going insane? Did we both have heatstroke? Did we prove that ghosts exist? Still, it was something very special that our brains connected in this way, with this same image.
Up until this point, I hadn’t actually seen the ghost. Despite my wanting to believe, I’ve always kind of not believed in ghosts too and never having seen one made me feel slightly disconnected from them.
The morning after my student shared her story with me, I came back to the house from a trip to town. As I walked to my room in the early morning heat, I saw a teenager, about 100 feet from me in a woodsy grove. The girl had on periwinkle shorts, a particular shade my mother had gotten into in the 80’s. (I can see a stack of cable knit sweaters piled on her bed in my mind now.) The girl was not so much wearing shorts, as skorts. She was looking at the leaves of a tree, as if she was looking for something—curious, but partially with the manner of a scientist. I thought it was one of my students, so I looked down. I didn’t feel like talking to anyone. A few seconds later, feeling guilty (aren’t teachers supposed to always be ready to talk to students?), I looked up. The girl was gone. I blinked my eyes. There was no way a person could have gotten away so fast. “That’s odd,” I said aloud to myself.
It was only later that day when I revisited the memory again did I remember she had gleaming blond hair.
Only months later did I think of one of my favorite moments of Stanley Kubrick’s (1980) The Shining, where Scatman Crothers’s character, Dick Hallorann, explains to Danny, the psychic boy, that the images in the haunted hotel are like pictures in a book, and that they aren’t real, which the boy repeats to himself for comfort when he sees the ghosts of the hotel, “Remember what Mr. Hallorann said. It’s just like pictures in a book, Danny. They aren’t real.”
It is not important to me to try and figure out if what I saw was “real” or an apparition. What I had sensed through my eyes had been processed into my brain as material space. In that what may have been a real image of my ghost had weight in my brain. It took up space in my brain.
Sometimes we see things in life very fast, so fast that we doubt ourselves, but we still know they are there. For example, oftentimes when we have mice in our kitchen (or is it just me?), they flash by us, with a splitsecond to register what they are. How often we can doubt what we saw, but still we have evidence to know it is there.
In the case of mice, there are droppings, broken bread crumbs, bananas with bite marks. With ghosts, there are often residues that are imperceptible, existing wholly within the imagination. With love, isn’t it love that we have felt, even when the physical reality has passed. Still, love is felt so clearly and neverending without sometimes so much as a sight of the beloved. We don’t need to see or touch a person to love them until the day we die. Just ask someone who has lost a person they have loved to refute this.
IV. Poetry Needs a Belief in a Shared, Material Imagination
You can’t always see what you hold in your imagination, but imagination is deeply felt.
Poetry has the ability to have us interact with the imaginary, because words together in the space of a poem make new realities—they make all the illusions of the imaginary real through language.
In his book, The Double Flame, in an essay called “The Kingdoms of Pan,” Octavio Paz explains that poetry is always about an embodied imagination, of making the unreal, the almost real, actually real:
When we dream and when we couple, we embrace phantoms. Each of the two who constitute the couple possesses a body, a face, and a name, but their real reality, precisely at the most intense moment of the embrace, disperses in a cascade of sensation which disperses in turn. There is a question that all lovers ask each other, and in it the erotic mystery is epitomized: Who are you? A question without an answer…The senses are and are not of this world. By means of them, poetry traces a bridge between seeing and believing. By that bridge, imagination is embodied and bodies turn into images.
And while any kind of thinking makes the imagination embodied, it is the holy space of a poet’s projected imagination, a space where new language can create new words that does so so poignantly.
Many years ago, as my father was suffering from Alzheimer’s, which he later died from, he would often go into a trance and say that he had been talking to his brother and father, who had both died decades earlier. Everyone around us, all the doctors and nurses said it was a psychotic break of the disease, that what he thought he saw was the residue of his long-term memory, breaking down and making him think the past was the present. They would give him something like the drug Abilify and he would quiet down. But who is to say that he didn’t see his brother again? Who is to say that his long-term memory wasn’t a thing being eroded away by the disease, but a space he was visiting, which he could visit again, one day soon, for an eternity?
In the same 1965 lecture I mentioned above, Spicer wrote of Yeats’ wife Georgie’s encounter with the spirits, how one particular occasion she got possessed by spirits and Yeats was able to speak directly to them. When Yeats asked them “What are you here for?” they spoke to him through her and said “We’re here to give metaphors for your poetry.” A generous set of ghosts that knew Yeats. But I think that all spirits in the spiritworld are generous, when you met them in the space of the Imagination within a poem.
V. Does a Material Imagination Make a Visionary Poetry
I am not the only poet to have ever actually seen an apparition.
Many many years ago, I remember reading an anthology of sorts on visionary poets. In the book, there was a story of Blake and how he saw angels in the trees, as a kind of physical reality of angels. When we see we perceive that the thing we see has weight, especially if it is a person-like thing, like an angel. To have a vision of something, to perceive in a visionary way, is to in some way assume that what we see is real, or weighty, is affected by gravity, is material. Blake saw the angel, believed that he saw it, and it changed him. It created a space in his mind for the angel to go. He wrote poems about it, with new words and new language and new angels from this imaginative space. We read those poems still.
My favorite scene from the movie The Shining has always been when Jack Torrance, the murderous father, goes to visit room 237, the most haunted room in the whole hotel. For many reasons—most of them lifted from the recent documentary called Room 237, in which theorist Jay Weidner asserts that the movie is Kubrick’s confession of how he helped to fake the moon landing films—this room is always what I think of now as The Moon Room.
When Jack goes in the room, there are very slow shots as he travels up the space the room. The camera focuses on the loud and beautiful purple and green carpet, with its radiating phalluses, the neon lilac couches, black and white bedspread and very mundane hotel wallpaper. Although slightly stylized, the room feels very real and deeply felt.
Next he finds himself in the mint green and gold bathroom, where he encounters the ghost of a murdered woman. She is in the bath, and slowly pulls back the slightly opaque clear shower curtain, to reveal her body, naked and statuesque and she gets out of the tub and moves towards him. She sees him.
I was recently on a tour of a collection of art objects in a very old museum, and the art historian who gave the tour was talking about some of the portraits, about how now we might have a portrait on the wall today, but in the past people kept cloaks or cloth over their portraits. It was thought that a portrait or art object was not something that you looked upon daily, because the act of seeing, of vision, was bidirectional. So, that when you looked at something, it looked back at you, and changed you.
I think in this way that a vision has viscera. That the bidirectionality of the seeing one to the thing being seen means that all vision and imaginative space created between the two things has weight.
When the ghost in room 237 looks at Jack, she starts to charm and mesmerize him. He becomes transfixed by the eroticism of the scene and forgets the possibility that she isn’t a living being, that her image isn’t real. (He never heard Mr. Hallorann say her image was just like pictures in a book.) She uses the bidirectionality of their interaction to get him to move towards her. It is more than mere seduction, between ghost and living being. It is the magnetic pull of faith that he has in his imagination through either his erotic feelings, her supernatural allure, or her intent. It is a mix of this magic spell.
Everyone knows how this scene ends. As he kisses her, she reveals herself to be an old crone, then a corpse, and laughs in his face at his faith in his own stupidity. Still, even in her decay, she is deeply felt in our imaginative spaces. She exists as some force and we see her and hear her, as she chases him out. There is a materiality to her presence, whether only in Jack’s mind or our minds now. I mean this, even though she is just a projected image on a screen. She exists, in some dimension, in some version of real space and time.
My reading of Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is that the book is really about three levels of perception of the realms of being: aesthetic/sensual, moral, and spiritual. Most people go the three-step path—an aesthetic or sensual experience leads to a moral understanding, which leads to an interaction with the spiritual world. But I think he is really saying in that book that the aesthetic/spiritual, when done right, takes a person right up to the spiritual realm. That when we make a truly beautiful piece of art we make a fast train into the land of specters.
When a poem happens, meaning and a shared imagination happen between a poet and a reader. The poem is the testimony. The poet and reader are in mental and aesthetic—and then spiritual—communion.
VI. What About Reality That is Not Real, What About Poetry
I have always loved the poem “Song of a Man Who Has Come Through” by D.H. Lawrence:
Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!
A fine wind is blowing the new direction of Time.
If only I let it bear me, carry me, if only it carry me!
If only I am sensitive, subtle, oh, delicate, a winged gift!
If only, most lovely of all, I yield myself and am borrowed
By the fine, fine wind that takes its course through the chaos of the world
Like a fine, an exquisite chisel, a wedge-blade inserted;
If only I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge
Driven by invisible blows,
The rock will split, we shall come at the wonder, we shall find the Hesperides.
Oh, for the wonder that bubbles into my soul,
I would be a good fountain, a good well-head,
Would blur no whisper, spoil no expression.
What is the knocking?
What is the knocking at the door in the night?
It is somebody wants to do us harm.
No, no, it is the three strange angels.
Admit them, admit them
There is a lot to say about it, but, of course, what I have always loved the most about the poem are the “three strange angels.” Who are they?
The word “strange” doesn’t really tell us much about who these angels are. But it gives us enough to know that they aren’t of this world, that they are part of the imagination.
Sometimes I think (and it isn’t exactly an original thought!) that when we write poetry, we always engage with ghosts. Maybe what we perceive quickly is what poetry collects for us, a space of half-impressions, of sensual residues. And maybe the things we only see or feel for an instant are the spaces of non-reality—superreality—coming into this world.
Is this maybe what Alice Notley meant when she wrote that all her life, since she was 10, she had been waiting to be in this hell here with us?
Is the living within the real, but a radio connection to a peaceful world of specters, what for Blake was the hell of reality in his “Book of Thel,” where he had to ask “Why a little curtain of flesh on the bed of our desire?” His question has haunted me all my life. Snow snow.
Surely the ghost in room 237 is part of the imagination, part of Jack’s and now part of ours. Or was her presence a weighted thing always? Is there a space somewhere, where Room 237 exists and she does, too? And does she touch Jack over and over again and make him run away, on a loop? And will we meet her too, in another time or place, because she has been born within our brains and will live there forever, a constant loop of imaginative memory?
Did the blond ghost bless me with the knowledge that the unseen is real, an openness to a door where other ghosts can pass through? Or did the blond ghost make a crack in my sanity that may never been re-glued? Did she make it impossible for me to ever see reality as wholly palpable again?
What seems most important about the event is how my student and I both shared her image. How much did our tellings and retellings of our encounters change her and change our memories of her and make her alive? Alive at once or alive again—isn’t it all the same thing?
V. To Conclude
To conclude, I bring to you an image of William Blake’s “The Mathematician,” an image of a person bent over his studies, his eyes focused on his theorem and not on the world around him. To me, he has always looked so much like a poet. Sitting with his back bent, the burden of gravity and language and light, and the night, upon him.
Perhaps an interpretation of this image is that the mathematician is so obsessed with the abstraction of reality that he can’t see the beauty of the world around him. That maybe he sees only with, not through, the eye, because he thinks and does not experience, the world.
Still, I can’t help but think that this image is about the materiality of a shared imagination. That Blake’s Mathematician or Poet makes a space with his paper where other thinkers can go, a space where we all can dare to go.
In a show a few years ago at the Whitney museum, I watched a movie of Ken Jacobs’ “Apparition Theater,” which required 3-D glasses. Among other images, one part of the theater was a group of shadows playing with balloons, and at one point, a sign goes up that reads: “Balloons go into the audience and you can’t tell what’s real.” Even though I knew they were not real balloons, I held my hands out to catch them as they bounded towards me. It was the magic of wanting to see the boundary between the real and unreal dissolved. To see the curtain of flesh on the bed of my desire lifted once more.
The imagination is a space where things can go. Where we make things up and share them with others. But the imagination is not a vortex to suck the world up, like the annihilation of death. The imagination is a holy space where things can live forever.
Maxine Greene, in her Releasing the Imagination, writes of the imagination:
The way things are for our life and body allows us only a partial view of things, not the kind of total view we might gain if we were godlike, looking down from the sky. But we can only know as situated beings. We see aspects of objects and people around us; we all live in [a] kind of incompleteness…and there is always more for us to see.
Once again, this is where the imagination enters in, as the felt possibility of looking beyond the boundary where the backyard ends or the road narrows, diminishing out of sight.
I once had a dream—I don’t remember the details—but I remember I woke up and I shot up in bed and said, “Maybe they give you the flowers in a different way. That’s poetry.”
There is a shared consciousness among humans––and likely all animals, maybe all living things, but most definitely humans––that we can share. We share the material imagination through poetry.
Alice Notley wrote in a poem, “Last night I saw that when I flowed out and became all else I was nothing./ I was everything. We are the electricity.”
Carl Sagan has said, “We are all made of star-stuff.”
We are the star-stuff. We are the electricity, the hope of the balloons bounding towards us, the holy holograms. This reality may be a violent one, but isn’t it the case that we will all be glad to know each other forever through poetry. To always choose one root of the pink sort over a million blue-violets. To be in the hell and the heaven of the space of imagination. To take a chance that this space is there and make this life the immortal one.
If you love someone and they die, make them come alive again in a poem.
Read a poem again and the dead don’t have to be gone. I promise you this much.
Think of it another way. Read a poem. Then you won’t have to be gone one day, too.
To hell and back again, I send you.