“Whatever is given,” says Nobel prize winning poet Seamus Heaney, “can always be reimagined.” For the past six years I’ve taken students to Northern Ireland (as well as the Republic of Ireland), and each time I have two thoughts. First, nothing seems less able to help than the imagination. Bombs, shootings, riots, marches. Violent murals, omnipresent flags, banners, and painted curbs (red, white, and blue in Loyalist areas, green, orange, and white in Republican areas) all of which serve as warnings to the zone of loyalties one is entering. Then there are the peace walls, the ironically named concrete and barbed wire monstrosities erected by the British army to keep neighbors from murdering each other. “How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea?”
My second thought is that nothing is more urgently needed than imaginative push back. In his essay “Frontiers of Writing,” collected in The Redress of Poetry, Heaney (with a little help from American poet Wallace Stevens) voices an astounding call to exercise the civic imagination on behalf of the common good. Heaney says of the Loyalist majority in Northern Ireland that “everything and everybody would be helped were they to make their imagination press back against the pressure of reality and re-enter the whole country of Ireland imaginatively, if not constitutionally” (202). Because Northern Ireland and the work of Seamus Heaney have taught me so much about the power and limits of the imagination, my mind drifted to them during Dr. Robert Franklin’s closing plenary at the NetVUE gathering in Louisville last month, in which he argued for the imagination as a virtue to be practiced in leadership and institutions in the face of the challenges confronting America (challenges enumerated by Dr. Rebecca Chopp in her opening plenary). As I listened, I found myself wondering: Could America be helped if we began to believe that meaningful change could at least begin with the imagination? Could I persuade students that imaginative resistance and push back is itself a vocation? What happens when we think about the imagination as a confrontation with possibility?
I believe that the imagination, if properly understood and properly practiced, can help us. I believe it can help us, as poet Alice Fulton says, in “revising the world’s alignments.” The imagination can help us to see better because it can help us—to borrow a line from blind Gloucester in King Lear—to “see feelingly.” Imagination provides what Heaney calls “a glimpsed alternative, a revelation of potential that is denied or constantly threatened by circumstances.” This revelation is visionary, but it is also powerfully affective. It can expose what Heaney calls “our love and terror,” the reductive social passions that drive solidarities and factions and bind us to those we fear as well as to those we love. And I believe that these virtues of the imagination—visionary, “countervailing gestures” (what Heaney calls the “redress of poetry”) thrown back at degrading or unjust social conditions, affective engagement, and comfort, even aptitude at navigating the unknown—have profound relevance to teaching vocation.
So perhaps the first step to making the imagination vocationally relevant to students is helping them understand what we mean by the term. Often “imagination” is used merely as a synonym for any kind of vaguely “creative” idea. But the creative imagination is a complex psychological, philosophical, and scientific set of theories about how and to what extent the mind associates, rearranges, and creates new or novel things from sensory material. This is important because it reminds students that the imagination is something that we all use all the time. It is a powerful agent in creating unity through shared vision and shared hope. Of course, shared visions and hopes can be hateful and divisive as well as loving and inclusive. Sometimes imagination’s work is undoing imagination’s work that has soured into destructive views of the world.
Acts of the imagination are acts of invention in the etymological sense of that term (from Latin invenio “to come upon, find”). You discover what you’re writing (for example) only through the process of writing it. This might seem obvious, but knowing how to not know, learning the art of ignorance, is one of the best lessons the imagination can teach us. Over 200 years ago, John Keats called this negative capability which he defined as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason . . . being [capable] of remaining content with half-knowledge.” Poetry calls us to be courageous and patient in the face of what we don’t understand.
This is the attitude students need toward vocation. In “College Pressures,” William Zinsser remarks of his students that “they can hardly conceive of a career that was not pre-planned. They can hardly imagine allowing the hand of God or chance to nudge them down some unforeseen trail” (215). In poetry as in life difficulty isn’t always a thing to conquer; it can be a gift. A frustrating gift, perhaps. But the practice of negative capability, the art of ignorance, ultimately teaches students—to harken again to King Lear— to “see it feelingly”: poems, people, vocations. Slow, tentative procession through the creative process, procession that is nuanced and compassionate, transforms the darkness of not knowing from a panic-inducing barrier into a capacious space in which the unforeseen may occur.
Heaney’s poetry provides opportunities for my students to practice acts of imagining. To take just one example, I might have them read and imitate Heaney’s so called “parable poems.” These are a group of simple, almost allegorical poems with titles like “From the Frontier of Writing,” “From The Republic of Conscience,” (this poem is the basis for Amnesty International’s highest award, “The Ambassador of Conscience”), “From the Canton of Expectation,” and “Parable Island.” The imagined spaces, places, and republics of mind found in these poems are not escapes from actual conditions; they exist in dynamic relationship to them.
“From the Frontier of Writing” presents a motorist interrogated at a military checkpoint. The poem then immediately rewrites this scene, repeating it closely, but the next encounter ends with a sudden, liberating breakthrough from the check point into the imaginative freedom that exists beyond the frontier of writing.
Most of my students have never been stopped at a military checkpoint and interrogated. But they could imagine standing face to face in hostile alignment with someone they consider an enemy, an “other.” They could then imagine turning so that they stand shoulder to shoulder with that person facing together a common obstacle in front of them. What possibilities could they then imagine as they cross the frontier of writing? What other things could the checkpoint be an image for? Race? Class? Gender? Writer’s block? One’s past? One’s future? Simple exercises perhaps, but I think something like them can help develop and strengthen student’s imaginations.
In “From The Republic of Conscience,” Heaney imagines what kind of place the republic of conscience might be. This is an assignment waiting to happen. How would students imagine this republic? What would the people be like? What would their customs be? What changes would it mean in your life in order to live as an ambassador of conscience? What connections might students make between the imaginative doodling of the poem and the powerful effect of conscience exercised by those who have won the award, such as Malala Yousafzai.
Exercises and assignments such as these could be culled from many writers from Northern Ireland and Ireland. One example I might mention quickly is Narrative4, an organization co-founded by Irish novelist Column McCann. Narrative4 is dedicated to the simple but brilliant idea of “[fostering] empathy and shattering stereotypes through exchange of stories across the world.” In Narrative4’s story exchanges, people, often of different backgrounds, work through and then tell each other’s stories. Telling someone else’s story is much more interactive than merely hearing their story, as powerful as that can be. Narrative4 has done work in South Africa, Northern Ireland, and many inner-city classrooms. It is a powerful and effective example of the imagination being lived as a vocation.
I could go on with other examples, but I’ll return in closing to some of Heaney’s best known lines, taken from the chorus of The Cure at Troy (a version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes) that pretty well sum up everything I’ve learned from Heaney, Northern Ireland, and Ireland about what the imagination can and can’t do for us:
Human beings suffer.
They torture one another.
They get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
Can fully right a wrong
Inflicted and endured.
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
Jason Stevens is an Associate Professor of English at Cornerstone University. He is interested in the role of the imagination, particularly the poetic imagination, in places of political violence and distressed social conditions.