Winter 1997, Volume 14.1
Joseph M. Ditta
Imagination and Technology: Reflections on the Future of Poetry
Joseph M. Ditta (Ph.D., U of Missouri-Columbia) is Professor of English and creative writing at Dakota Wesleyan University. His work has recently appeared in The Midwest Quarterly, Midwest Poetry Review, Illinois Review, The Ohio Poetry Review, and others.
Mine is an old computer, one of the first generation of IBMs, the kind that have a dark screen monitor on which the words shine in bright green. Next to it is a dead printer, an old Epson, which refuses any longer to spike up the paper from the box underneath it. I have been resisting replacing these old machines for the newer models. I see these new ones every day. Their monitors have bright screens and words appear in black on them, though one can change the color of the words if one desires. I am not thrilled.
Why does this matter? It matters because I am fixed on these bright green words, because when I write, these words become vivid things in themselves, each one like a bright light that shines in the dark. I have learned to think of words this way over the ten years I have worked on this machine. I lose this feeling of numinousness with the new computers.
Why does it matter? It matters because technology affects us; it transforms not only how we do things and how we think about the doing, but also what we do. There have been times in our history when poets were not only regarded as but actually were the leaders of intellectual and creative life. Because they combined the aesthetic dimensions of art with the conceptual heritage of their culture, they shaped both the sense of life and its interpretation. And there have been troughs, when poetry declined and the leadership in aesthetic thought and experience—that cutting edge which opens new ground for artists of all sorts—passed on to other media, painting, fiction, cinema.
Changes in technology characteristically produce both excitement for new potentials and nostalgia for traditions. Often, those who are most excited by these changes are the ones who most directly benefit from them; and those who seem not particularly affected at first remain loyal to the methods of the past and praise the virtues of tradition. In a world in which poetry has disappeared from the reading habits of the people, those first IBMs were pure magic—something out of an alchemist's lab. Words lit up by themselves the room one wrote them in; they glinted, shined, almost spoke themselves as they came letter by letter onto the screen. Admittedly, when time came to pass these words on to the vacuum, they took the old forms—black words on white pages pressed between paper covers of magazines or the stiffer covers of thin little books. But their moments of creation, that was where the alchemy was performed. Before the eyes, they came sprouting up onto the black velvety square like a lawn of grass at the command of one's fingers.
The new machines have made the experience of word processing so much more business like, with their rulers, white screens, black words, split screens, windows, tool bars, etc. One sits in front of them feeling more like a draftsman than a poet. I am one of those who love the old ways. A traditionalist, if you will, though my tradition is only ten years old. Old and ancient at ten years. Though the maple, which I see through my study window even as I tap these keys, is over eighty years old. And still young, as far as trees go.
I have no antipathy for technology. The oral tradition in pre-literate Greece was formulaic and could hardly have given us the rich interrelationships of parts and the structural and emotional unity of Homer's great epics which these works finally acquired in their written form. Writing was itself a technological advance and had a definite impact on the early cultures that had acquired it. As Walter J. Ong has shown in Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, the transition from the primary oral stage of culture to the literate, with its dependence on writing, was accompanied by transformations of consciousness—how we experience and use our modes of self-expression and our imaginations. The advent of writing represented potentials for growth and reinvention of our own self-conceptions.
Our technologies, therefore, as much as our arts, are an expression of who and what we are as a people. But technology also has a life of its own, is put to purposes different from art, and some of these purposes can be dark, as we have found, often to our horror, in the twentieth century. Technology can and does change us, has been changing us at an accelerating rate since the industrial revolution, and is having profound impacts on us now, affecting not only how we do what we do, not only what we do, but, even more deeply, how we use our imaginations to live and express our living in the forms we offer for contemplation in our arts.
The whole situation is symptomatic of the role of poets and of poetry in our creative and cultural lives. We all know the story of cinema in the twentieth century. And the story of television. And the stories of walkman radios, audio tapes, CDs, video machines, video games, the internet, interactive cable, etc. For those of us to whom words matter, words that are not pictures, that do not make up pictures, and that are not music, and do not aspire to be music, for those of us to whom words are the essential makers of meanings, poetry still is the meaning-making medium, much as it was for the mythical blind man who chanted the first verses of the Iliad.
Technology is the application of science to industrial or commercial objectives, and, in a larger sense, is a body of knowledge about methods for accomplishing tasks. It tends to immerse us, naturally enough, in the realities it is designed to manipulate. The aesthetic imagination, on the other hand, is concerned with abstracting life impressions from their contexts for the purposes of embodiment in aesthetic forms to be offered to our contemplation as autonomous objects—not, to be sure, directly connected to life, but, insofar as they are mediated by the artist's vision, radiant with meaning for life. Artists see their work, from the minutest details of craft to the broad vision, as both construct and expression and as being both impersonal and personal, embedded in the history of their art and a—historically original. Our new technologies tend to intrude into this two-sidedness, with the effect of dividing artists from themselves by externalizing craft and formalizing the imaginative content of their work. As such, the new technologies have profited most everyone but artists, and among these, poets the least.
Caught up in the competition for attention, when radio and cinema and vaudeville were creating new cultural experiences, poets had to innovate to keep their place in the world. But the world was seldom listening and, enjoying new forms of pleasure, was often deliberately deaf. In the lifetime of my maple tree, we have seen Imagist poets strive to make poetry more concrete, to concentrate on the "thing" itself. We have seen others strive to write their verses in the form of the musical phrase instead of the metronome. Poets have broken up syntax, restructured sound patterns, made poems in the shapes of things, broken up lines and line structures, abandoned rhyme and meter, made poetry objective, "found" poems in urban trash and technobabble, collapsed and revised spelling, made poetry surrealistic, dadaistic, futuristic, abandoned poetry altogether, or made it confessional, folkways telling, colloquial, democratic, and, in the fullness of time, captured poetry for all sorts of liberations—when political and social agendas, serious in themselves, displaced aesthetics altogether. Through all of it, poetry became ever more distant from its readers.
Why does it matter? It matters because even though the technological and material world changes, the needs of humanity do not change—people do not lose their need for the direct encounter with meaning that is the special province of poetry. Poetry is inherently personal, private, and emotional. Its vehicle of expression is words, which are mental and conceptual in nature. But the drift of our technologies has been toward externalizing our aesthetic experience. Public taste regarding the arts has largely been transformed by this drift. Public arts that once had a partly private character by virtue of the craft needed to accomplish them—painting, sculpture, music—now have machines to take over the element of craft, supposedly freeing the artist in all of us from the constraints that craft imposes. The drift has been toward externalizing the aesthetic, a direction the poet cannot take.
But the adolescent, sensing in his or her body the breaking up of boundaries, the crossing of thresholds, still feels the world and the realm of possibilities it holds as a purely personal affair, and, like all dawn creatures, is prone to dream, needs to dream, and thus needs the personal psychic alignments that poetry offers, the visions of meaningfulness that can shape his or her knowledge of self and give meaning to the chaos. And at the other end of life, when the body is again crossing thresholds, the human mind becomes once more riveted to its own personal existence, and is again desperately in need of visions of meaningfulness—not the scientific explanations, nor the pulpit's, but the feeling meanings, the resonances and traces of life shaped into visions of wholeness, even if only glimpsed, only partly perceived—for what poet ever does more?
Most of us most of the time are insulated from the chilling and vigorous airs of these sunrise and sunset times. The prime of life is outward directed and likely to find the technological avenues to aesthetic experience very convenient. One throws on a CD, or perhaps a video, or pulls out the keyboard—it's all programmed to select instruments, provide back up accompaniment, set the chords and tempo, and record. Instant Yanni. There is nothing wrong with this. It serves its purpose. But there are other purposes.
The complacencies are shook by early death, accident, disease, natural and human-made disasters, those metaphysical moments when reality intrudes into the fantasies of our lives. Suddenly our confidence and security are shorn away. When has there been a time when such things did not happen? Death and instability reside inside us like the darkness of a closet in a well lit room. Our cosmologies account for this aspect of our lives by providing us with literal readings of ancient myths that long ago lost their intensities. For this reason some of us manage to suppress our awareness of this darkness. But some of us are never able to. Awareness of oblivion within pumping away our lives with each heartbeat is one of the essential motivators of the aesthetic imagination. When that imagination becomes so technologized and externalized, and thus "captured" by the social forces (industry and commerce) that produce the technologies, aesthetics become secondary and pleasure dominates the arts and gives them their only meaning. Sunrise and sunset all too often go unrecognized.
Why does it matter? It matters because over time we gradually lose our capacities to embody in symbolic forms—forms that allow us to recognize and contemplate—the subtleties of our nature, which loss tends to make us ignorant of ourselves. We fall into the sickness of literal mindedness. Apollo and Dionysus, Athena and Aphrodite are such embodiments. As are the stories of Europa and Thalia, Leda and Io, Oedipus, Agamemnon, Odysseus, Medea, Jason, and Hercules. The inconceivable and the unique, the unrepeatable, the story of beginnings, the mysterious forces that drive men and women into all sorts of strange and unimaginable experience, the appetites that dominate our energies, the irrationalities, inhibitions, blindnesses, brilliancies that make our lives both fearful and incredibly rich, all come to focus in these figures, who stand in our imaginations as cautions, exemplars, explanations, guides, warnings, and as objects of terror, as well as divine beings who are aspects of ourselves.
Poetry is the medium in which words become, like the gods and goddesses, heroes and heroines, actualizers of the latent contents of the imagination. Words in themselves and juxtaposed become simultaneously metaphysically profound and sexy, dangerous and solacing, fusing present experience with unthinkable consequences, revivifying the past and annihilating the present. But most important of all, words make those surprising connections between things human and non-human that startle us into sudden recognitions, making intelligible what was not even suspected.
The poetic imagination has always sought for, found, and internalized the connections between humanity's own rhythms and the mysteries of creation, between personal existence and all that is other, the universe outside the self. The poet's words create these connections, and these connections exist nowhere except in the experience of the words: "Western wind when wilt thou blow,/ The small rain down can rain./ Christ, if my lover were in my arms,/ And I in my bed again." In the voice of this thirteenth-century lyricist we hear the poet mourning the loss of youth and virility, a loss expressed by inserting the aging self into the cyclical returns of spring. In the world view animating this poem, humans and nature are distinct creations, with different relationships to God. Yet this poet perceives within the self the ground of an identity found in the feeling of sexual love, a revivifying condition that can reconnect him to his own vitality and through it to nature. This cry that comes out of nowhere and speaks to no one in particular speaks to us as forcefully today as it did to its contemporaries.
"The whole idea of all life," writes D.H. Lawrence, "and all time suddenly heaves, and appears before us as an apparition, a revelation. We look at the very white quick of nascent creation. A water-lily heaves herself from the flood, looks around, gleams, and is gone. We have seen the incarnation, the quick of the ever-swirling flood. We have seen the invisible. We have seen, we have touched, we have partaken of the very substance of creative change, creative mutation. If you tell me about the lotus, tell me of nothing changeless or eternal. Tell me of the mystery of the inexhaustible, forever-unfolding creative spark. Tell me of the incarnate disclosure of the flux, mutation in blossom, laughter and decay perfectly open in their transit, nude in their movement before us."
Tell me of the mystery, tell me of the incarnate—these are the demands of sunrise and sunset; but they are also the demands of the imagination when it turns its eye toward what most attracts it. Lawrence's eye is fixed to the Now, the instant in which all things that happen happen, the seething, teeming instant of becoming. Emily Dickinson's eye was fixed on the eternities, and she found and expressed those moments when eternity erupted into Lawrence's Now. Dylan Thomas fixed on the experience of Being itself and found life and living strangely merging into mystical oneness: "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,/ Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees/ is my destroyer."
We interact in two ways with the non-human, imaginatively and technically. Technically, we reshape the non-human, giving it forms determined by our needs for our use. Imaginatively, we interact to know—as scientists to create a body of knowledge about it; as artists to create ever-denser experience of it in the acts of living in, through, and by it—experience that defines our aesthetic as well as actual lives. For the artist is always concerned with the value for life of our perceptions, impressions, and sensations, and this cannot be apprehended except through the emotion-charged transfiguration of metaphor, image, simile, and the feelings of rhythms, movements, patterns of sound, color, light, and texture. The scientist and the artist both work by abstraction; but the scientist abstracts to generalize, while the artist abstracts to particularize. The scientist's success has value for society as a whole; the artist's has value only for the individual. As the scientific enterprise succeeds, the pace of its learning increases; and this success feeds back into faster and faster technological development and change. By nature, no such increase in artistic production or use accompanies the success of the artistic endeavor.
With all its swiftness of change, with its plethora of things, our world today is more inchoate and discordant than ever. Its electrical charge rearranges our identities, our modes of communication, our interactions, redefining our reality, adding virtual realities to our manipulations, and steadily drawing our hearts out of our bodies, daily dwindling the amount of time we spend integrating our selves into coherent personalities. Our daily experience runs at eyeflipping speed, like an MTV video. When something happens that stops the flow, we are disoriented, sometimes crazed with fear, for the incomprehensible seems to us then malevolent.
The poet stops this kaleidoscopic flow so that it can be examined, contemplated, internalized. Prosody mimics mental experience, but also measures it, shapes it, makes it meaningful. "I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow./ I feel my fate in what I cannot fear./ I learn by going where I have to go." Foot behind measured foot, with incredible deliberateness, the poet shapes a permanent moment, wrests from the verge of time a moment of stillness. A moment we can experience forever. This foreverness, this shaping, is what poetry is. Words. The most fleeting of all things, the most ephemeral, outliving empires, lasting longer than the granite foundations of temples and palaces.
Technology externalizes the imagination, thereby diminishing the free play of inventing and combining forms to make new meanings, and restricts the play of the mind to fixed forms. Technology therefore both enriches and impoverishes us. It gives solidity to fantasy, quickness to creation and distribution of thought, involves more individuals in shared experience and in dialogue, informs more people, and binds us together. At the same time, it makes it more difficult for us to take the imagination seriously, to see in the products of the imagination a certain penetration into metaphysical realities by means of which we formerly constructed our interpretations of the meaning of our lives. It is a question of belief.
When the poetic imagination figured the body as a cocoon and the soul as the butterfly which emerges from it, the figure brought together and sealed a relationship between concrete and metaphysical reality. This relationship, an expression of the imagination itself, had the power to structure our values and reinforce belief. But the capacity of our technologies to generate fantasy images has made all figures of the imagination ontologically unreal—virtual, to use a word that is now redefining our concept of play. The impact of virtual reality on our use of the imagination today represents a qualitative change in the relationship between technology and the arts. The widespread cultural effect of this change is to deprive imagination of its persuasive power and thus to reinforce our tendency to literal mindedness. All products of the imagination are thus seen as alike—unreal, virtual, things to be played with to the extent that they can give us pleasure or express, usually, the grosser emotions of sorrow, fear, happiness, sexual arousal.
There has been a tendency in our culture, from Plato to the present, to think of art as a commentary on life, as having a one-to-one correspondence with reality. In such a view, art is essentially didactic, its value being determined by its "message." And for just as long, artists have rebelled against this conception of their inspiration. The divine madness of the artist, his or her Dionysian ecstasy, has always been tempered by the Apollonian verticality of thought and meaningfulness, which brought to art its social dimension. This tension is responsible for the meaningfulness for life of the artist's autonomous aesthetic object. And this tension is being undermined by the change in the ontological status of the imagination.
Now, poetry is, if nothing else, pure expression of the imagination. It is the last of the arts to succumb to technology. But succumbed it has. To my knowledge, there is no externalizing, craft-replacing software for poetry writing equivalent to graphic arts software or music writing software, or the laser sculpture technologies that now can make perfectly accurate three-dimensional portraits. Our modern technologies have affected poetry on the level of concept, and on the level of expressed content. To the extent that the poet today addresses the minutiae of daily living, making his or her figures connect reality to reality, to that extent he or she still has a lien on public consciousness. The poet's palette has in some ways, as a consequence, expanded enormously, making it much more possible for him or her to have green thoughts in a green shade. But to say "When at my back I always hear/ Time's winged chariot hurrying near" is no longer possible, for the figure's efficacy, its power to evoke anxiety, depends upon the readiness of the mind to transport a purely imaginary thing into the real experience of life. It does not depend upon belief in Apollo driving the chariot of the sun across the sky, but upon the capacity of the imagination to synthesize image with experience in a way that confers metaphysical reality upon the image, thus giving sensual texture to a meaning that is not part of reality, but which becomes part of reality in the figure. We have then this double phenomenon, the power of the word, the formal fixing of experience in the aesthetic moment of the poem, and this change in the use of the imagination, this divide that has opened between reality and the now "unreal" realms of imaginative play.
The poet today who stretches the relationship between vehicle and tenor in the metaphor is regarded as flighty. Tastes have changed. But it is no longer just a matter of taste. Our orientation to the imagination has also changed. We see this changed orientation in the humdrum presentations of network television, with its emphasis on "reality" shows, and the pandering to public desire in made-for-TV movies of the kind that depict the latest scandal of glamorous and even not-so-glamorous people, those who become celebrities for a day by some gruesome or titillating crime, and by the plethora of talk shows that endlessly recount bizarre but "real" experiences among their guests. We watch amusingly or fearfully the outrage among conservatives and Nixon republicans over Oliver Stone's Nixon, consternated as they are by the difference between the man they knew and the image of him portrayed in the film, unable to bridge the gap between reality and the demands of the aesthetic medium. CNN is another example, offering news, both national and world-wide (actually generating interest in local affairs in New Delhi and Nairobi, feeding while itself creating an endless appetite for facts), twenty-four hours a day, and court TV, C-Span, and so on. Public interest in these programs is widespread and constant, and one would be wrong to deny that such interests are not an expression of a profound change in how we use our imaginations.
I am describing a dissociation, perhaps a continuation into profounder effects of what T. S. Eliot described as a decline in imaginative power, the growing incapacity of poets to "feel" their thought in their senses, and to manifest that feeling in imagery that compels the reader to a sensual appreciation of ideas.
Poetic ideas are not abstractions or generalizations, not concepts of the kind manipulated in discourse, even the simplest discourse. Poetic ideas are syntheses of moments of experience and words, words whose denotations have no direct or obvious relationship to those experiences but which together with them make new meanings, meanings that could not have existed until those combinations occurred. The dissociation is of this synthesis: between the moments of experience now and the words whose denotations once inserted us into unexpected meta-realities, no connection is any longer perceived to exist.
Shakespeare could write of the fall season and relate the time of year to the human condition of growing old, with its attendant emotional textures, in the imagery of the "cold,/ Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang." We can read this image today because it is part of our past, which we honor with our appreciations or our protestations of them. But with our emphasis on truth to experience, on the "realism" of image and import, such an image if produced today would be condemned as fanciful and affected.
Some might argue that service to truth is the ultimate duty of the poet, and that in a world whose boundaries are disappearing, and in which injustice and violence and mistrust are leading to new and strange political configurations, the dedication to truth has never been more necessary. The problem is how we think of truth—for truth has always been an integral part of the aesthetic experience. Today we think of truth as the real in contrast to the virtual, the play image, which is thought of as purely recreational. That is, the virtual has its interest for us because it is not true. Formerly, truth had to do with the fitness between the experience and the meta-reality created by language, and it was this fitness that generated in us as readers or listeners what we understood to be the aesthetic experience. Strange confabulations and admixtures occur now as we work out the ontology of our new "games" of life and death. Reality becomes entertainment, entertainment strangely mixes with mastery of the new environments created by our technology—a word whose meaning in this context stares us down like a tyrant; and our work environments and play environments merge, and sometimes become interchangeable.
For minds habituated to the ontological divide between historical and virtual reality, the poetic idea can have no explanatory power, no catapulting effect on the emotions. The world of imagination is reduced to a recreational function. When in his deep-toned bardic voice the white-haired Whitman announces that he is "stuccoed with quadrupeds and birds all over," the imagination is presented with an enormously complex task of synthesizing, interpreting, and grasping a meaning whose truth is not to be found in reality (for in reality, the image is absurd), but in a way of feeling one's relationship to the world, a truth moreover that, the more deeply we grasp it, the more profoundly it confirms our suspicions that our notions of reality are inadequate. There is less and less room in our lives today for the imagination to function this way.
I have been reading poems by American minority writers, poems that are emphatically accompanied by little biographical narratives to make sure the reader fully appreciates the details. Some of them are very moving, and the writers are all gifted. But I can't help wondering whether the entire content of these poems could not as easily have been presented in photographs, or in documentary films, or in straight narrative forms. Their dedication to the truth of experience and to the feelings that their experiences give rise to inevitably binds them to memory, to accuracy, to life, and binds them in a way that limits the imagination to presentation. Connecting the real to the real, these poems subordinate poetry to subject matter.
Aesthetic value is not located in social or political significance, nor is it located in reality, so that faithfulness to reality and accuracy are not in themselves means to aesthetic experience. Marianne Moore's imaginary toad in a real garden was a misconception, a step towards where we are today. Blake's tyger nowhere treads a real rainforest. He is a numinous being, a "y" beast in a world of "i" beasts. No knowledge of tigers in rainforests can ever help a reader to understand Blake. No photograph can illuminate him, no narrative reproduce him.
The value of the aesthetic experience, and uniquely of poetry, is that it initiates us into the mysteries of our own psyches and guides us toward realization—an enrichment that the common paths of human experience cannot provide. And so we come to our final question. Can poetry as we formerly knew it have any role to play in a world of dissociated imagination, a world that crazily shuttles between virtual reality and historical reality?
Youth and age are permanent states of human being, the darkness within remains a permanent part of our experience of life. The conditions that warrant the aesthetic moment still warrant that personal, private, emotional encounter with the poem. What has retreated is the metaphysical reality that once was the province of the imagination. This, then, is the challenge for poets. In the past, the belief system of the culture was the point of entry to the metaphysical realm, either directly, as for Dante, or as the oppositional structure against which the poetic imagination constructed its alternative visions of human nature, as for Lawrence and for many of the moderns. Today, that belief system has largely been discredited, and, as yet, no new system has taken its place. Our scientific cosmologies are no substitutes, mainly because these have been the instruments by which the old has been dismantled, and because they are themselves incomplete, still growing, and, more importantly, because they contain within them as part of their essence the notion that they will always be incomplete, for their field of activity is co-extensive with existence.
Science leads to wonder and awe, and that is a beginning. But wonder and awe are not enough, for these are states that must finally come to rest in our experience of them, and because, as beginnings, they inevitably lead to metaphysical questioning, where science itself leaves off.
The poetic medium is especially suited to penetrating the opaquenesses of personal, private experience, connecting that experience to other, larger realms of human knowing and intuition that radiate meaningfulness into our lives. I think, for example, of the ancient story of Tristan and Isolde and the depiction in that tale of the world-transforming nature of romantic love—in a world whose vision of this experience was negative, condemning it as the surrender of rationality, as Dante does in the story of Paolo and Francesca. Here is an instance of the poetic imagination creating a new vision of the meaningfulness of life. So powerful was this vision that in the coming centuries it seized Western culture and transformed the relations between the sexes. Joseph Campbell writes in depth of this seizure in the impressive fianl volume of his Masks of God. This is the poet's contribution to our lives, for by playing with words and combining them with experience, he or she reshapes our assumptions about values, redirects our line of sight, and focuses on what lies hidden in our experience of the world because it is masked or overlaid by convention, familiarity, and tradition. Playing with words is no idle time-killing, it can be and is dangerous—for its repercussions can be infinite. This is the nature of art.
The field is open for poets, and I cannot believe that the poetic imagination will fail of the challenge. For all that our technologies offer, poetry remains irreplaceable. What is needed is a combination of faith and daring—faith in the enterprise and the daring to break with those conventions that confine the imagination to the real, to be the poet.