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31 December 2006 @ 02:56 pm
Self-expression and self-indulgence  
In her chapter on imagery in A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver cautions student poets on the power of imagery and reminds them of the “emotional excitement” it can create. She compares a poem with excessive imagery to a carnival ride that can jostle, jolt, and over-stimulate to the point of being exhausting: “In the shed electricity of too much imagery the purpose of the ride – and a sense of arrival – may be lost.”  She also touches on imagery that can be fit or unfit. She admits that it’s largely a matter of personal taste, but points out that “literature is the apparatus through which the world tries to keep intact its important ideas and feelings.”  She then finishes her brief discussion with this: “If you are not sure your image is appropriate, don’t use it. Imagery that is inappropriate, or excessive, or self-indulgent, is offensive.”  Food for thought, although defining with any precision what constitutes self-indulgent imagery could be difficult.

For me, it becomes a little clearer when I isolate self-indulgence as an independent phenomenon that can occur in any realm, poetic or otherwise. Self-indulgent behavior can be off-putting or even irritating for a few reasons. As a simple example, think of the Drama Queen who overreacts to a remark, thus drawing lots of attention to herself, at a gathering intended to honor someone else’s success or happiness. Self-indulgent behavior tends to signal unhappiness in the person who is acting that way. This follows from the idea that a person whose energy is primarily self-oriented occupies a small world with limited horizons. Unhappiness is uncomfortable to witness; we often turn away. It also follows that self-indulgent behavior signals unawareness in the person who is acting that way, because who would consciously choose to be unhappy? Finally, because self-indulgent behavior suggests unhappiness and unawareness, it also probably means that the person is, at least in the given situation, unavailable and unreceptive to contact with other people and ideas. So because a self-indulgent person seems to be unhappy, unaware, and unavailable, we would tend not to pursue a friendship (or in a smaller context, a conversation) with that person, and our reluctance could easily register as our responding to something offensive in the other, though I don’t think that that’s precisely what is going on.

To return to Oliver’s notion of self-indulgent imagery in poetry, we could say that such imagery ignores the needs and expectations of the audience. Like the Drama Queen at the social gathering, the poet who employs self-indulgent imagery lacks an awareness of others (the audience), and as a result, creates a poem that may repel rather than invite deep reflection on the reader’s part.

Is it too far flung to compare poetic imagery to social behavior, using self-indulgence as the point of comparison?  I could easily replace the word ‘literature’ in Oliver’s quote above with ‘social interaction’ to create this statement: Social interaction is the apparatus through which the world tries to keep intact its important ideas and feelings. Particularly when discussing imagery and social experience in the same breath as I do here, we can say that there is an intimate link between artistic expression and ordinary, daily activity, since metaphor itself, a figurative use of language that seeks to articulate the ineffable, is necessarily based on that which is well-understood by the average person.  (If the idea of metaphor isn’t entirely clear to you, I’ll post a poem tomorrow by Antonio Machado that will help.)

Comparing art to everyday life also reminds me of one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s wonderful observations in Peace Is Every Step: “Everything we do is an act of poetry or a painting if we do it with mindfulness. Growing lettuce is poetry. Walking to the supermarket can be a painting.” (from Part One: “Our Life Is A Work of Art”)
Current Location: My study
Current Mood: artisticartistic
kragen on January 1st, 2007 03:44 am (UTC)
Thank you for this. I find inspiration in it.
pbramante on January 1st, 2007 06:45 pm (UTC)
I'm glad, Kragen. What seems most inspiring to you?