Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Balloon of the Mind

I was reading some Yeats and Emily (Dickinson) a couple of nights ago, and I spent some time thinking about one of my favorites: "The Balloon of the Mind".

Hands, do what you’re bid:
Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind

Into its narrow shed.

This short quatrain is a very overlooked Yeats, probably because it is not as lyrical as the work for which his biggest fans admire him. In any case, for me, this poem has always been a thought about the dreamer and the imaginary. The world outside the physical reality that leaps over into possibility and unencumbered by constraints of obligation or mandatory. It's a fantasy world born out of creativity.
The "balloon," according to the speaker, is not the total mind; it is only part, or "of" the mind. It is the precious and delicious part that is creative, spontaneous and able to wander off from the codes and norms- the grasp of what is "real" or what can really happen in the material world. This wandering component escapes from the "do what you are told" world, which is clear in the imperative first sentence, which is, in fact, doubly imperative: the speaker tells his hands to do what he himself has already been told to do (either by an outside person or norm or himself). The first line's terseness is no doubt purposeful in it's reflection of an authoritative given order, with an implied "because I said so" empty logic. Adding the childlike imagery of the speaker reaching for a balloon lost in the wind, and this poem is a short but vivid picture of an interrupted and seemingly nonsensical daydream- a "pay attention!" wake up call.
But, sadly, the speaker is awoken to a "narrowness" of the mind, emphasized by the smallness of the dwelling, not even a house, but a shed! The shed is, of course, where ugly but useful tools are stored, tools that are often needed for creativity, but only for those creative works that are carefully outlined and deemed as necessary.
As I meditated on these lines more and more, I saw how, perhaps, it speaks of "allowed creativity" or creativity that is controlled, monitored or copied. After all, the "balloon" survives. The speaker is told to bring the "balloon" back and not to pop it or something fatal like that. In other words, "be creative! be imaginative! but only like this... don't do it like that!"
Thinking on this possibility reminded me of the final drafts I graded this week (the Literacy Autobiography assignment). Many of my students wrote about the frustration they encountered when given a writing topic with "narrow" focus and "narrow" constraints. The issue of control was very much present in these essays, but one particular essay I graded caught my attention. The student described how he passed his writing courses by figuring out what the instructor wanted to hear, and even though he hated it, he had to play the game. When he diverged from the opinion of his instructor, on subject matter or format, the student was typically told to change it, and in his words, changing his writing was changing his mind.
Another student wrote about how the other worlds that reading allowed her to experience were not worlds she would have chosen to visit in the first place; they were reading assignments that even her teachers would complain about.
Reading and writing are intensely creative, and students are not experiencing them in a "balloon" or "wind" creativity; instead, they are experiencing the "narrow shed", the obligatory creativity that is almost impossible to separate from a service writing course.
 I'm trying to think about how to incorporate more choice into my FYC courses, but that is quite difficult for many obvious reasons.
In a video interview with author Margaret Atwood about creativity, she explains how natural it is for humans to want to be creative and share their creative works with a real audience. She describes the purpose and power of storytelling and the importance of imagination in children and adults.

She describes "art" as "something that people make," and this is exactly what I want to communicate to my students. Their writing is art - blog posts, essays, reflections - because they make them. "Making" implies thoughtfulness and intention, which is what I think is barely starting to make sense to them. I do want to add that "choice" is also a component of "art" or "creativity". The idea that they can choose how their essays turn out is something new for them, I think. The more they grasp that concept, the more they will see their essays, even research papers, as creative, born out of the the balloon riding on the "wind" and not housed in that "narrow shed". 

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