Samuel Taylor Coleridge identified two kinds of creativity: the primary imagination and the secondary imagination. The primary imagination is inspiration from something outside of any known or quotidian experience. It’s new; it’s a kind of creative leap. The secondary imagination is inspiration from work that came from the primary imagination of another artist. The secondary imagination emulates the primary imagination.
Most of the art we experience comes from the secondary imagination. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. Work from the secondary imagination can be excellent. But, for the serious artist, the primary imagination is always the goal.
Coleridge says we access the primary imagination by, first, knowing our stuff (the technical), and, second, letting go of our stuff to allow the flow of the primary imagination (the spiritual). He identified this process with the Latin phrase “laxis effertur habenis,” or “carried on with slackened reins.” The second part is the difficult part. Almost anyone can learn the technical elements. And, in fact, the technical becomes a place of great comfort. So many artists waste their lives hiding behind the importance of craft. Craft is important––it’s the stuff you have to know––but if you cling to it, your art will most likely be lifeless. It will certainly be of the secondary imagination.
Letting go of the technical to make way for the primary imagination is one of the most difficult things a person can do. It is frightening and trying. It comes at a great cost––a kind of suffering. And that brings me to the point of this post. I’ve been thinking about suffering in art.
You’ll often hear people (often artists) scoff at the suffering artist stereotype. But, clearly, many of the greatest artists have been great sufferers. So what if there are primary sufferers and secondary sufferers? What if while the few truly great artists actually suffer for their creations, there are many who emulate them not by creating works of the secondary imagination, but by simply suffering and not creating anything at all? Are these secondary sufferers the ones in the “solitary midnight Starbucks Golgotha, defaming the objects of their former ardor?” I wonder what Coleridge would say.
Enjoy the Tony Hoagland poem below. It’s one of my favorites.
I Have News for You
There are people who do not see a broken playground swing
as a symbol of ruined childhood
and there are people who don’t interpret the behavior
of a fly in a motel room as a mocking representation of their thought process.
There are people who don’t walk past an empty swimming pool
and think about past pleasures unrecoverable
and then stand there blocking the sidewalk for other pedestrians.
I have read about a town somewhere in California where human beings
do not send their sinuous feeder roots
deep into the potting soil of others’ emotional lives
as if they were greedy six-year-olds
sucking the last half-inch of milkshake up through a noisy straw;
and other persons in the Midwest who can kiss without
debating the imperialist baggage of heterosexuality.
Do you see that creamy, lemon-yellow moon?
There are some people, unlike me and you,
who do not yearn after fame or love or quantities of money as
unattainable as that moon;
thus, they do not later have to waste more time
defaming the object of their former ardor.
Or consequently run and crucify themselves
in some solitary midnight Starbucks Golgotha.
I have news for you—
there are people who get up in the morning and cross a room
and open a window to let the sweet breeze in
and let it touch them all over their faces and bodies.