Practising Imagination

Agnes on Caldy beach march 2017
Agnes on Caldy Beach, Tina and Chester in the background, Chester playing in mud

Thinking about imagination and direct experience this morning. I was slightly aware,  as I looked through All The Days of My Life yesterday, that my attitude to poems, to literature in general, has changed in a significant way over the last…shall I say ten years? This is something to do with my instinct about a key element of Shared Reading.

It’s out of print now – be great if The Reader could get it back into print, please – but worth tracking down a secondhand copy of ATDOML  as this anthology is a very particular one, with a personal  take on both poetry and life experience. It was  put together by my husband Phil Davis, for me, when I was a teacher in Continuing Education, reading a lot of poetry with my students and  wanting a book with all the good ones in. So he made it. It came out in 1999, just after we had started The Reader magazine and just before I began ‘Get Into Reading’, which would become Shared Reading and The Reader  as it is now.

What I realised as I looked through the  book yesterday was that I know almost every poem in this collection, have read all of them at least once and some of  them many, many times. They are part an inner geography/library that connect to the growth (as Wordsworth might put it) of this reader’s mind. And yet some of these poems I am unlikely to read anymore because they do not allow me to  think directly about my own experience. I suddenly feel as if concentrating on a key problem in Shared Reading (got to make it personal) has sent me  off at an angle, small at first, that is only now realised as too big. I’ve gone off course!

Take, for example, ‘The Voice’ by Thomas Hardy;

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,

But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.

This wonderful poem, which I think I first read in  let us 1982, in Brian Nellist’s University of Liverpool English Department third year Victorians and Moderns tutorial, has almost fallen out of my reading repertoire. Why? I tend to read poems that allow  me meditate on my own life and problems. This poem is more like a story, requiring me to practice imagination. I think  I do practice imagination in reading but nearly always in prose or Shakespeare. But when I choose a poem I’m often looking for and choosing poems that reveal something directly about me, to me.

Let’s read this poem about Thomas Hardy, then.

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Hardy begins with ‘woman much missed’  which is, in any context, an odd formulation. We might have expected  ‘woman’ as an address but ‘much missed’ is direct, personal, confessional, really. Is he speaking to her – Woman –  or to himself?

We hear a man  haunted by a voice, ‘how you call to me, call to me,’ an echo. He has been longing to see (‘much missed’), to hear her, and now she is here, calling, but there is no comfort for him. What the voice is saying seems complicated and nostalgic and also, perhaps, guilt-inducing. Is this why he started with ‘much missed’? In what sense does he  miss her ? Because he didn’t seem to miss her when she ‘had changed from the one who was all to me’;

Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Those three lines are awful to imagine. The ‘woman much missed’ may not be the same woman who has died, but an earlier version of that woman, with whom Hardy fell in love  ‘at first, when our day was fair.’ By the time the real physical woman died, he  no longer loved, she had changed ‘from the one who was all to me.’

As I read in this way, I am tussling with words and syntax, trying to understand as many layers of meaning as I can reveal by reading,  by noticing. This is our basic  equipment in Shared Reading ( if this was parkrun, it would be putting one foot in front of the other to achieve locomotion).  You can call it ‘close reading’ but I call it reading. It means noticing and becoming conscious of as much as you can.

But I am doing something more than reading  (‘close reading’,  ‘analysing’, ‘taking apart’, ‘deconstructing’) the words, spaces, line-endings, punctuation and rhythm. These elements add together to come more than the sum of the parts: I am getting inside Thomas Hardy’s experience. as I unpack the layers  of thought and feeling, my brain experiences the language and the language-experience as if it were my own. Mirror neurones! Imagination!

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

A noticing reader will be aware of the commas on  either side of ‘then’ on the first line of this stanza. The first reading of ‘then’ is straightforward, a conversational pattern we hardly notice in daily use; ‘let me view you, then,’ where ‘then’ probably means ‘in that case.’ I used it in exactly that way at the start of this post.

So the whole line  means – on one level – is it you? yes? in that case, show me.

But ‘then’ is also  a time word.  And the next line takes us back to the past, ‘then’ is picked up, an echo, like the voice itself, and we understand a terrible jarring feeling happening over and over again in side this man grieving for someone who left him (or whom he left)  long  before she died.

As I read, I am inside the experience of the poem, inside the mind of the writer of the poem following through the written marks on the page, like tracks, his thought patterns. And the harder I read,  the further inside his thought-processes I get. Thus reading the poem, in this way, teaches me to practice imagination.

Now I am in his shoes as he stands there, no longer quite hearing the voice, almost no longer haunted. Yet how bleak that feels;

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

In fact by the time we get the word ‘dissolved’ the voice seems completely gone. And ‘wistlessness’ – is this a word Hardy has made up?  Wist=know, so wistless seems to mean ‘heedless’ or ‘not knowing’? Does the line mean ‘you, being dissolved, cannot know (me) (anything), are not there? Have ceased to haunt me. She is now ‘Heard no more again far or near?’

The tremendous last stanza, with its astonishing self-knowledge,  visible in that formulation,  ‘Thus I;’
Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.
Look at me, Hardy seems to be saying, a man barely able to stay upright, in wind and leaf-fall, in cold of north wind, among thorns…’and the woman calling.’ And so we return, cold and weary, worn-out, to the beginning. The poem is circular and  Hardy cannot escape its round and round again-ness. Always, finally, the voice, coming back to him.
To practice reading, is to practice entering the experience of another, the experience of the poet. I go back to Archibald MacLeish:
But what, then, is the business of poetry? Precisely to make sense of the chaos of our lives. To create the understanding of our lives. To compose an order which the bewildered, angry heart can recognize. To imagine man.
If I understand what it is to live Hardy’s terrible life in these Poems of 1912-13 then I understand more of human experience than  if I simply live my own life.
Why then my concentration on reading poems which help me understand my own life? For me self-understanding is the starting point, and I am still at that starting-point, sometimes seem to be more at it than ever before.

But  something has happened this morning which makes me think I need to add in poems of not-my-experience to my daily readings.  I don’t want to  narrow down my imagination, got to keep practising.

 

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