“The mind’s eye”. We all know the phrase. The ability of the human brain to imagine or picture a scene, a face or an object (in other words, the imagination) is probably unique to Homo Sapiens Sapiens, though we don’t know this for sure. Image-ination – the creating of images, can take place in the mind just as the painter can create an image on the canvas with paint.
We all know this, but what I want to stress is that the written word in particular has the ability to form images in someone else’s mind, with the writer using words just as a painter uses pigment and brush-strokes. Literature in general and I think Poetry in particular, can conjure up a myriad images, and what is so amazing is that each person reading the words will form a different picture in their mind. If a writer describes someone’s appearance, each person reading the words will imagine a subtly different face. I’m not sure if it was Dryden, or Dryden quoting Sir Philip Sidney, who said “Imaging is, in itself, the very height and life of Poetry”. Macneile Dixon said “The human mind is not …a debating hall, but a picture gallery.”
In my Thesis at art school many years ago, I postulated that Literature could arguably be called one of the “Visual” arts, from the actual physical written word, such as in the great illuminated manuscripts of the Medieval monks, lavishly illustrated tomes such as The Divine Comedy, to children’s picture books; from ornate calligraphy to the different fonts available on one’s computer; from concrete poetry to the collages of Picasso and Braque, which frequently incorporate the written word. Wordsworth wrote of “the intellectual lens through the medium of which the poetical observer ‘sees’ the object of his observation, modified both in form and colour.”
The words “intellectual lens” gives the clue to the thing that differentiates the picture-making of the painter and the imaging of the poet. The former is obviously a more physical process, involving a language which is more direct and sometimes more readily apprehended. The poet on the other hand, uses a medium the form of which does not correspond to the forms he is describing. John Livingstone Lowes said “Language itself stands in no immediate relation to the objects it represents.” The painter of the past employed forms that corresponded truthfully with the forms he saw. An apple, though represented in two dimensional terms on the canvas, had the curves, planes, and light and shade modulations that the real apple had. The abstract painter of today, without describing forms representationally, nevertheless continues to use forms and colours which convey a particular visual experience, or puts a non-visual experience into colours and forms which correspond to the experience.
However, the poet and the artist are motivated by the same sorts of impulses, though the means of communicating them are different. William Blake said “One power alone makes a poet: imagination, the divine vision.” And surely this applies to the artist too. But it is not my intention to compare the writer with the artist, or to say which has the easier task, for each is as difficult as the other, but to examine the things which they have in common, thus putting forward reasons why the writer could be called a visual artist.
I would like to continue with these thoughts at another time, but for now I’ll end with a little poem I wrote some years ago after a visit to the Dorset coast, in spite of being hesitant to include it among quotes by the likes of Wordsworth, Blake and Dryden. I like to think of it as a little word-picture which hopefully conveys the visual experience as well as the mood of that evening on the cliff-top.
Rabbit gutted by gulls
Furred front paws to
Small shut face.
Blood on the cliff-top grass
Over the drop, the sea
And the long curved shoreline
And the deep sweep
Downwards, of grass
To sand and pebble
And the sharp, white
Sheerness, down to the sea.