I Imagine, Therefore I Am

Posted on by Dodge

Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry

Each spring, the Dodge Poetry Program offers poetry immersion groups for New Jersey Teachers. We don’t call them seminars or workshops because they are neither. The sessions are based on certain assumptions about the nature of creativity, its central place in our humanity, and the belief that poetry is one of the most powerful means to reconnect with and reinvigorate our creative consciousness. Those assumptions we have articulated as the Four Core Principles that underlie all our work in the schools, with teachers and in designing the Festival. The First Core Principle, discussed below, is deeply rooted in Dodge’s commitment to creativity and sustainability. We will discuss the other core principles in the weeks ahead.

1) Imagination and creativity are essential to our humanity: Without them, what we understand as human consciousness could not exist. Poetry can stimulate awareness of and trust in our imaginative essence.

This imaginative essence (the source of metaphor and poetry) may be what defines us as human. While there are many qualities and features we share with the rest of the animal kingdom, humankind appears to be alone in its capacity to make metaphor. Our other neighbors on the planet can be said to sing, dance, act and some, like bowerbirds, even participate in the visual arts, but we alone appear to engage in myth-making and poetry.

Creativity/imagination/poetry (whatever name it is given) is what makes it possible for us to perceive a self. What we call human consciousness may have emerged the instant we could imagine a self existing as an entity distinct from the world we live in. Many spiritual traditions argue that this self is an illusion, that we cannot exist separate from the world. If they are correct, then the self, or the ego, to use Freud’s term, is a work of creative fiction. It may be that imagining a self was the act of the imagination that took us out of animal consciousness and separated us from oneness with nature (a state we now long for as a long-lost Eden).

Human consciousness is an imaginative consciousness. We are constantly imagining and re-imagining our place in the world. The voice of thought that runs relentlessly in our mind is creating the story of our life during every second of consciousness. (Radically revising it while we sleep.)

What, if not the capacity to make metaphor, allows us to make comparisons and connections between self and other, experience and ideal, or desire and reason? Without the capacity to imagine such comparisons and connections, we cannot make any essential quality-of-life decision. Mere reason is not enough. Modern neurobiology has discovered that when the emotional and logical centers of the brain are disconnected, by illness or accident, the capacity to make decisions is lost. MRIs have revealed what artists, seers, philosophers and poets have been saying for millennia: our reason can only function if connected to our emotions.

On the simplest level, people who rely completely on logic to methodically plan out a life ― reasoning that if they go from A to B to C they will then reach their goal ― may find themselves completely unable to function if, for example, a catastrophic illness interrupts their plans. If they have not cultivated their imaginative core, they may lack the ability to creatively imagine themselves in this new way of being in the world.

Standardized testing is in direct opposition to any point of view that treats creativity as central to human consciousness. Standardized testing is based on the assumption that all important knowledge can be objectively measured. Being in the world teaches us again and again that the opposite is true: the most important things we need to know cannot possibly be objectively measured.

For example, how do we know:

  • What we are willing to die for?
  • Unwilling to die for?
  • What work will give our life meaning?
  • That we have met our life partner?
  • That we should/shouldn’t sign that Do Not Resuscitate order?

School work, that of both teachers and students, leaves less and less time for creative engagement with the questions that cannot be answered on a standardized test. To allow our creative inner life to die is to risk allowing our essential humanity to die. At the Dodge Poetry Program we believe this work, of allowing poems and words to wash through us, is as essential to our inner lives as clean water is to our bodies. We need both to survive as fully functional human beings.

At the 2000 Festival, Thomas Lux said that any emotion, insight, or experience is a gift, and that the care given to crafting a poem is an act of honoring that gift. The poem passes that gift on to others. Considering the decades of disciplined study required to become proficient in reading or writing a poem, why do so many of us make the effort?

Poetry (and we are still using it as the name for all the experiences and activities that emerge from our imaginative essence) almost certainly evolved in humans as an evolutionary necessity. Over and over poets say the purpose of this art (and of all the arts) is to teach us what it means to be a human being living in the world. It is necessary to learn and re-learn what it means to be human because, as a species, our hold on our humanity is so tenuous. We are in constant danger (anytime we feel threatened, frightened or enraged) of dropping back down the evolutionary ladder into our reptilian brain: the source of our fight or flight response.

Although we often praise intellect as the feature that makes us distinctly human, history shows us that in times of extremity intellect often fails to withstand the urgencies of the reptilian brain. It is not simply that reason vanishes in times of extreme emotion (a potentially dangerous predicament in itself) but that we prove most dangerous, as individuals and as societies, during those times when we persuade ourselves that we have control over emotions we have merely repressed.

The repressed rage and grief of the German people after their devastating defeat in World War One found rationalized expression in the logical, organized, methodical Final Solution. Whether it’s the Spanish Inquisition, the American slave trade, or the Nazi Holocaust, the pattern is clear: the more ferocious the act of inhumanity, the more elaborate the façade of reason (often manifested as an intricate bureaucracy) required to hide it. The repressed emotion becomes the Minotaur because we rely on intellect to construct the labyrinth that conceals it.

It is no coincidence that both World Wars were immediately followed by two revolutionary and prolific periods in all the arts, or that the potential epidemic of social isolation engendered by computer technology was countered by a nationwide renaissance in the spoken word (the most intimate of arts), or that every newspaper editor’s desk was swamped with unsolicited poems in the aftermath of 9/11.

With the instinctual fight-or-flight response hard-wired into our brains and with our unique power of abstraction, we have the ability, as a species, not only to create ever more efficient means of self-destruction but also to rationalize their use. We use reason, so often praised as the light of our humanity, to justify our actions when we are most inhuman. We alone in the animal kingdom can justify causing our own extinction. Perhaps poetry evolved as a necessary mechanism to protect us from ourselves.

Archaeological evidence suggests that shamans emerged concurrently with the first human social groups. The faculties that allowed us to perceive that banding together would increase our chances of survival also allowed us to posit that the disbanding of the group would increase our chances of dying. Once we could abstract death into a universal concept, we could also perceive the inevitability of both our individual deaths and this fundamental question: why continue to hunt, work, mate, and migrate when we are just going to die anyway? Religion, mythology, and poetry all seem to have emerged in relation to the need to find a purpose in life. We need poetry to endure the knowledge of our mortality. We need poetry to survive as conscious human beings.

If death is eminent and immanent in the world, then the great unknown, the world of the dead, is in the darkness around us. Quite literally. It’s easy to forget living in our modern suburbs and cities, illuminated by electric lights twenty four hours a day, where the boundary between us and the wilderness is so distinct, that for most of our history humans were the prey as often as they were the predator. The stranger, too, is a source of danger and fear. There’s no reason to believe that when roving groups of hominids encountered each other that they were any less ferocious in protecting or claiming territory than any of their primate cousins. Locked in the fight or flight response, we flee the stranger or we kill the stranger. With our increasing intelligence, we learned to do the latter ever more efficiently. Indeed, our intelligence may have continued to increase through just such a process of natural selection.

And why should I not use my wit and my skills to kill my neighbor? Steal his food or belongings? If we’re all going to die anyway, and I’m stronger, meaner, shrewder than he, why shouldn’t I simply take what I want while I can?

We can only understand the good of the group, of the species, by learning to cooperate, by learning to value and protect the quality of each other’s lives ― in short, by learning to feel empathy for others, which requires that we can imagine another’s life, experience and state of mind. For “Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you” to mean anything requires that we imagine that the others have an inner life as rich and capable of feeling as our own. The social group that learns this lesson will function well together and increase their chances of survival. The teacher who can convince others to live in accordance with these values will help his or her group to flourish.

All the great teachers of the religious, spiritual, mythological, and ethical systems that have emerged in human history have also been great storytellers. What is a parable but the result of our metaphor-making capacity? And a parable can never make its point unless the listener has the ability to imagine the connections, associations, and relationships between the story and his/her own life and experience.

Storytelling/metaphor-making/poetry has been central to the creation, teaching, and remembering of every code (from acceptable moral conduct to proper cultivating technique) that has made society possible. The extent to which any given group possessed the imaginative capacity to interpret and explain its place in the world largely determined its chances for survival. No wonder shamans, storytellers, and poets have been important in all societies: they make culture possible. The late Kurt Vonnegut pointed out that they also act like the canary in the coal mine: they warn us when we are failing to sustain our culture.

“I Imagine, Therfore I Am” is copyrighted (©) by Martin Farawell. Please do not reprint in part or in full without permission.

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