|Hutchison, J. The Ambivalent Image Educational Insights, 11(1).
The Ambivalent Image
taught creative writing, both poetry and fiction, off and
on for so many years and learned so much from my students
that it feels disingenuous to offer up insights as my own.
The greatest satisfaction in teaching writing comes from
collaboration: it’s a pleasure that arises unbidden
out of immediate impressions projected on the constantly
changing screen of experience.
I think I know, though, and that others might find worthwhile, is an idea I stole
from the great philosopher of the poetic image, Gaston Bachelard. In his book Earth
and Reveries of Will, he writes:
“[A]ll images emerge somewhere
on a continuum between [...] two poles. They exist dialectically,
balancing the seductions of the external universe against
the certitudes of the inner self. It would be fraudulent
then not to acknowledge the double tendency in images
to extroversion and to introversion, not to appreciate
their ambivalence. Each image [...] must be understood
in its full complexity. The loveliest images are often
hotbeds of ambivalence.”
found this approach to the image, in poetry especially but in prose as well,
to be useful in helping students break away from the notion that images are snapshots—that
somehow accuracy, crispness of focus, are what they’re all about. (Before
I discovered this particular book of Bachelard’s, I tried pointing out
that the most effective photographs aren’t powerful because they’re “accurate” or “well
focused,” but it’s tough to draw positive conclusions
from a negative example.) Once a writer makes the shift
from image-as-snapshot to image-as-hotbed-of-ambivalence,
even the most common image exercise can produce breakthroughs.
example, the standard “observational poem” exercise.
I used to put forward this instruction: “Write an
observational poem whose aim is to create a vivid picture
for the reader. It may help to think of it as a painting
or a sketch.” Of course, some writers would come
back with snapshots: images devoted to accuracy and focus;
only occasionally would someone come up with a painting
or a sketch—images bent or coloured by emotion—and
while I could draw attention to them, I often found it
impossible to argue why they were better images.
of Bachelard’s insight on my little exercise has
been to break it into two parts: 1) “Write an observational
poem whose aim is to create a vivid picture for the reader.
Think of it as a well-composed, perfectly focused snapshot.” Accuracy-and-focus
students love it because the instruction essentially eliminates
ambivalence; the others tend to chafe at the restrictions.
2) After we’ve looked over
the poems, I start introducing Bachelard’s ideas
about extroversion and introversion (ambivalence), and
I offer some examples. At the simple end of the scale,
there’s Robert Frost: “The buzz-saw snarled
and rattled.” We
try on the weakening effect of changing “snarled” to
something more accurate: “buzzed” or “popped,” for
example. At the complex end of the scale, there’s
Robert Bly: “The dark surrounds the frail
wood houses that were so recently trees.” Turning
this into a snapshot thoroughly denatures it.
who understand the nature of true poetic images automatically,
and often unconsciously, raise the bar for their work. Because “hotbed
be produced like prints at Wal-Mart, they teach patience—as
your mother always said, it’s a virtue—and
usually lead the poem toward a richness the poet couldn’t
consciously choose to create.
You’re like wildwood at the edge of a city.
And I’m the city: steam, sirens, a jumble
of lit and unlit windows in the night.
You’re the land as it must have been
and will be—before me, after me.
It’s your natural openness
I want to enfold me. But then
you’d become city; or you’d hide
away your wildness to save it.
So I stay within limits—city limits,
heart limits. Although, under everything,
I have felt unlimited earth. Unlimited you.
In memory of Michael
April 28, 1969 – September
The dream refused me his face.
There was only Mike, turned away;
damp tendrils of hair curled out
from under the ribbed, rolled
brim of a knit ski cap. He’s hiding
thought, and my heart
shrank. Then Mike began to talk—
to me, it seemed, though gazing off
at a distant, sunstruck stand of aspen
that blazed against a ragged wall
of pines. His voice flowed
smoke, or amber Irish whiskey;
or better: a brook littered with colors
torn out of autumn. The syllables
swept by on the surface of his voice—
so many, so swift, I couldn’t catch
their meanings . . . yet struggled not
to interrupt, not to ask or plead—
as though distress would be exactly
the wrong emotion. Then a wind
gusted into the aspen grove, turned
its yellows to a blizzard of sparks.
When the first breath of it touched us,
Mike fell silent. Then he stood. I felt
the dream letting go, and called,
“Don’t!” Mike flung out his arms,
shouted an answer . . . and each word
shimmered like a hammered bell.
(Too soon the dream would take back
all but their resonance.) The wind
surged. Then Mike leaned into it,
slipped away like a wavering flame.
And all at once I noticed the sky:
its sheer, light-scoured immensity;
the lavish tenderness of its blue.
Hard to imagine yourself
in the ground … a shabby mess
of broken spindles, the loom
that cranked out the cloth of you
smashed, scattered—and somewhere
the ego sputtering its rage.
You can hear it now—railing
like a mill-town dowager
piqued, let’s say, by the country’s
fraying moral fiber. Her spotted fist
gavels the tea-table, making
the bone teacups clatter.
“Oh! The very idea!”
This slug on the path is both slick and slow-witted. They
usually stick to the granite coolnesses in the rock garden,
but this fellow’s managed to wander into the sun’s
killing glare. Maybe the morning’s overcast made
him think dusk, and venture out. Anyhow, now he
races—there is no other way to say it—“sluggishly” toward
the lilac-shadowed grass. Not blindly, though. As we
bend down to study him, the creature curls upward, waving
his antennas like little drunken fists. Then he goes
back to hauling an invisible heaviness across the warm
flagstone. It must be that his mortality weighs as much
as ours, and therefore we’re drawn to his ache,
his speechless effort … watching him arch and
stretch like the tongue in a dying man’s mouth….
At the end of our last visit, I waved
as the car slowed away from the curb,
and Dad waved back—straightened
in his wheelchair where he’d parked it
at the living room’s picture window,
and raised both arms and moved them
like a signalman wielding invisible flags
on a ship’s sinking deck. With a shock
I saw that he was waving to a vanishing
image of himself, signaling in distress,
at sea in a mirror made of lost time.
Bachelard, G. (2002). Earth
and reveries of will. (K. Haltman, Trans.). Dallas, TX: The Dallas Institute.
Bly, Robert. (1992). What
Have I Ever Lost By Dying? New York: HarperCollins.
Frost, Robert. (1995). Collected
Poems, Prose, & Plays. New York: The Library of America.
About the Author
Joseph Hutchison is the author
of 11 collections of poems, including Sentences and Greatest
Hits 1970-2000 (both in 2003), The Rain At Midnight (2000), Bed
of Coals (winner of the 1994 Colorado Poetry Award), House
of Mirrors (1992), and The Undersides of Leaves (1985),
the 1982 Colorado Governor’s Award volume, Shadow-Light.
His poems and short stories have appeared in such publications
as American Poetry Review, The Bitter Oleander, The
Colorado Review, The Denver Quarterly, Fiddlehead, The
Hudson Review, Luna, Midwest Quarterly, Mississippi Review,
The Nation, Ohio Review, Poetry (Chicago), Prism International, and
in several anthologies. A poem published in The Nebraska
Review was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2003.
He has also published numerous literary essays, book reviews,
and magazine articles.
He has taught elementary through high school age children
for Poets in the Schools programs in Colorado and Oregon,
graduate level students at the University of Denver’s
University College, and adult learners online. A member
of The Academy of American Poets and The Colorado Authors’ League,
Joe lives with his wife Melody in the mountains southwest
of Denver and makes his living as a writer. Visit his web
site at http://www.jhwriter.com or drop in on his blog
About the Artist
Andrew Young is
a senior geography teacher at Georges P. Vanier Secondary
School in Courtenay, B.C. and the B.C./Yukon territory
representative on the Canadian Council for Geographic Education
national executive. His first award for photography was
for pictures of sunrises at Big Bend National Park in Texas;
in 1978 when he was not quite ten and also not quite awake
(his dad dragged him out of bed far too early in the morning).
Since that time he has melded his passion for geography
with his enthusiasm for photography. The frequent ribbing
that he and his other family members gave to his father
for looking for that perfect moment to photograph on vacation,
while they waited in the car for what seemed to be hours
on end, taught him to slow down and look for a while. “There’s
beauty in every moment and in every place; seeing beyond
the façade of the obvious and delving into the world
that surrounds you offers rewards to those who are patient.
I find that photography helps me to look at the world in
a very different manner, one that demands that I pay attention
to every nuance of the environment around me and I wouldn’t
have it any other way”.