My Fancy

Walt Whitman by Thomas Eakins

In Robert Creeley’s essay, Reflections on Whitman in Age, he reflects on Walt Whitman’s poem, “Good-Bye My Fancy”. It is particularly the word “fancy” and Whitman’s meaning of the word that Creeley muses on. “It’s a great word in itself, the contraction of fantasy: “c.1325, ‘illusory appearance,’ from O. Fr. fantasie, from L. phantasie, from Gk. phantasia ” appearance, image, perception, imagination,’from phantazesthai ‘ picture to oneself,’ from phantos ‘visible,’ from phainesthai ‘appear,’ in late Gk. ‘ to imagine, have visions,’ related to phaos, phos ‘ light.’ Sense of whimsical notion, illusion’ pre-1400, followed by that of ‘ imagination,’ which is first attested 1539. Sense of day-dream based on desires is from 1926, as is to fantasize…” (Creeley,”On Earth“,2006,p.65)

How the meaning of the word has changed over time. It begins as a part of one’s perceptions- filled with one’s own power to bring something into reality, into the light of day and progressively degenerates to a mere day- dream of one’s own desires. I am particularly attracted to the idea of phantazesthai– ‘to picture to one’s self.’ Taking a feeling or an intuition or a perception about the world and presenting it back to one’s self and allowing it to stand as an image before one’s self as in a mirror- to see if we recognize it- is powerful. Does its new, visible form stand as the perennial symbol of that hidden perception? Has this image, gaining material substance, come to light with a sense of accuracy and authenticity?  This interaction between an interior perception or feeling is an essential element of the creative life.

The Sufi writer, Ibn al-‘Arabi, speaks about the objective reality of the imaginal world. The imaginal world exist as an isthmus between two mirror images. One residing within the world. The other, existing beyond our present perceptions which can only be glimpsed at when one has either died or in a dream or reverie. This place of reverie brings one to the isthmus where one can look both ways, to the visible and to the hidden. The area between the two is where insight resides manifesting itself through images that have their own independent life. Through its sense of mirror image, what is internal finds its identification in an outward source, reflecting it back to one’s self. This is at the heart of ‘imagination‘.

Only through the process of  ‘picturing it to one’s self ‘ is the perception retained and given a body, an image, that can further be reflected upon by one’s self and others. The artist’s real struggle lies in this. Creeley concludes his thoughts on Whitman’s ‘fancy’ by stating that the poets job is to give an idea a body, a body that calls the present and reflections of the past together in a reverie of the moment. Memory is key- for it calls forth the impression with renewed intensity before one’s eyes. Whitman’s ‘fancy’ reveals a deeper power of mind than we care to admit about our ‘imaginings’. Creeley reveals, that “‘reality’ is the given imago mundi, the fantasy into which one is born. It’s where thought and sense find a way of meeting…” (Ibid, p.65)

Late Works

Oil on canvas.
Image via Wikipedia

One thing that always captures my imagination is the last images produced by an artist. One never knows when one’s end will come, yet it is revealing to see the work produced by an artist in the last couple of years. There is almost a premonition of the end. I often think of Rembrandt’s late self portraits, especially the image of him in the dirty smock and white hat with his grey hair long and unkempt flowing from underneath (Self Portrait with Two Circles,1669, London). He looks frankly at himself. There are no illusions anymore. No whims or fancies to be sought after. There is only what is before him- a man. All that was in the periphery has slipped away and what remains is the essential- the elemental. One of Robert Creeley’s last poems, Here begins,

Up a hill and down again.
Around and in-

Out was what it was all about
but now it’s done.

At the end was the beginning,
st like it said or someone did.

Keep looking, keep looking,
keep looking.

Creeley’s emphatic advice “to keep looking, keep looking” seems to be at the heart of what attracts me to these works. Frans Hal’s late portraits, produced when he no longer had any money or loyal patrons, express his inherent desire to look squarely at his subject and peer into its deepest recesses. He no longer produced to receive favors and fame but painted because he had to- to verify his existence and those around him. Robert Henri’s late portraits of children are striking for their minimalism. He strives to paint only as long as it takes to capture the essence and character of the individual. There is no fancy brush work, no attempt to finish. The child in his or her simplicity rises up from the encounter and speaks quietly and beautifully about the meaning of existence and the nature of being. Poetry that is profound, simple and essential.

There is a deep sense of responsibility in these late works. A responsibility to the unique vision that had been granted to each artist. Sometimes there is regret too. And this itself adds to the profoundness that we feel before these works. In a sense we identify with the artist and recognize our similarities and our frailties as part of our shared human nature. Manet’s late small paintings of flowers produced when he could no longer get out of bed speak of a simple desire to see, to look and to look again. A desire to take all that beauty with him- to embrace it and never let it go.

After School

We’d set off into the woods
and would climb trees there
and throw things, shouting
at one another, great shrieking
cries I remember- or would, if
I dreamt- in dreams. In dreams,
the poet wrote, begin responsibilities.
I thought that was like going to
some wondrous place and all was
waiting there just for you to come
and do what had to be done.
(Robert Creeley,On Earth, 2005)