Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Poetry and the stuff of the world

I've been thinking lately about poetry -- well, that's no surprise, really. I've been thinking lately about the process of writing, and about what it is that alerts me that what's about to come out the end of my pen is going to be a poem and not, say, a blog post or an essay or a bit of fiction. I've read a couple of things recently that have helped to illuminate my understanding.


First, Mark Doty's article about memoir in the new issue of Poets & Writers, "Bride in Beige: A Poet's Approach to Memoir." Since I am not (yet, anyway...) a memoirist, most of the article was interesting in that remote sort of way that one can be interested in something that one doesn't engage in oneself. But when he talks about the differences between how a journalist, a fiction writer, and a poet might approach memoir, my internal ears perked up. Journalists, he says, are interested in the facts of a situation, in what happened. Fiction writers view the memoir through the lens of character, specifically the character of the narrator: "who's telling this story, and what does he or she know?" And of poets, Doty says they "are used to the idea of the speaker in the poem being a somewhat unstable construct, the voice of a field of subjectivity. What they're after is a representation of how it feels to live, and almost by nature they're more concerned with what feels true than with any objectively verifiable presentation. They also tend to be people who think in terms of form. ... "

What they're after is a representation of how it feels to live. That seems to get to the heart of something about poetry, to me; it suggests reasons why poetry permits -- even needs -- nonlinearity, fragmentation, repetition, collage, juxtaposition. (Not that all poems need to, or should, contain all of these. That would be messy.) It suggests to me those moments when you are able to pry apart the surface of the world and get a quick peek at something deeper, at the mechanisms underneath. When I'm writing a poem, or about to write one, I often have this feeling that I am elbow-deep in the inner workings of something, that I'm trying to grasp something about how the world is -- I'm not explaining this well. I think musicians must have this same feeling when they are in the flow of performance or composition; I think scientists must have this same feeling when they're on the verge of proving a theory; I think physicians must have this same feeling when they're skating on the margin of a diagnosis or a cure. There is just that moment of sensing something that usually, once you've started actually putting words on the page, evaporates and you're left trying to describe the shadow that it left behind. It's not a fact about the world, it's a representation of how the world feels. And that's what sends me diving into poetry.


Reginald Shepherd, in his blog, quotes a presentation by poet Brian Teare that includes this passage from Thom Gunn's notebook; it made me sit up straighter in my seat and suck in my breath for a second:
"Why is my impulse to write poetry so closely connected— so much a part of—my sexual impulse? When I feel one, I feel something very similar to the other. I don’t like this too much—I mean I like it somewhat, but I feel it necessary sometimes to steer my energy into nonsexual subjects almost by an act of will, since I don’t believe all the important parts of life are sexual. And when I succeed in doing so, I’m quite often successful. Yet it does, even then, derive from an energy that is sexual energy—it’s quite the same kind of concentrated excitement that lights up everything in a limited area (as a flashlight lights up everything in the circle it makes)."
I've often had this same feeling, that poetry has an essential eros even when it's not overtly about anything sexual. The way it feels when I know I'm about to write a poem, when I'm reaching for the first phrase or reaching for the pen, has a lot in common with sexual arousal. Part of it, I suspect, is just the hyper-awareness of the physical world and the attention given to the senses; poems don't usually work very well unless they're grounded somehow in the experience of the physical, which is why poetry is not philosophy (or why philosophy is not poetry). (Yes, I know there are exceptions to this rule.)

But more than that -- and this may be more true for me, as a poet with a stronger tendency towards the lyric, than for a poet whose natural tendency is towards the narrative -- it is that sense of everything zeroing in around one small moment, a detail, a phrase, a sound, an image, a moment of recognition of something. When you think about sex -- specifically, when you think about orgasm -- it is all about the sensation experienced by a very small part of one's body (enhanced and magnified, of course, by the sensations experienced by the rest of one's body, but centered in a place that is, not coincidentally, very near the body's center of gravity). It is also, oftentimes, about the way one's partner's body becomes one's entire world at that moment. A sense of magnification, of concentrated, focused light. A sense that everything that matters is contained right here.

Coming to a poem is like that. I'll stare at a tree and for that moment, everything about the way the world works is somehow contained in that tree, or in the texture of the bark on that tree. Or a word or a phrase or a set of vowel sounds comes into my mind and that snippet of meaning somehow glows with intensity, contains a myriad of other meanings. So much does depend, as it turns out, on that red wheelbarrow -- or on whatever happens to be caught in the intensity of that poetic focus. And what it takes to spark that process can be as varied and unpredictable as, well, the range of wacky stuff that people find sexually arousing.

Although I will admit that I have never personally met anyone with a sexual fetish for red wheelbarrows. But that doesn't mean they don't exist. I'm sure you could google it.


Finally, this is just something I've noticed about how I am writing recently, say the last year or so. And maybe this is just the Gemini in me taking over. But I'm finding myself interested almost exclusively in the juxtaposition of unrelated images, or of an image being used to lead into an unrelated story. For example, a poem I wrote recently which began with the image of an animal in my attic, then went directly (with very little explication) into the narrator walking through an airport and feeling a heightened awareness of all the people around her and how each of them feels that their own life is the most important story in the world. I couldn't tell you what the attic animal had to do with the faces in the airport, but the place where those two things intersect felt to me like one of those little momentary windows onto the way the world works.

Again, I don't think I am explaining this well. "There's a raccoon up there and you know what, it's kind of like life." I think I heard a Miss America contestant give a speech kind of like that once.

Let me approach it this way. For most of my writing life (and I've been writing poems longer than some of you have been alive, which kind of scares me to realize), I've most often been a poet of chronology -- I won't go so far as to call myself a narrative poet, but I've found it difficult to allow my poems to be fragmented, to include gaps, to make unexpected leaps. My impulse has always been to build the bridge that leads from Point A to Point B, to lay out every span and trestle of it, rather than to just present Point A and present Point B and trust the reader to understand that, on some possibly non-verbalizable level, those points are inextricably connected. Now, I'm finally figuring out how to put two seemingly unrelated things in the same poem and let the connection between them arise from the things themselves, not from my (the poet's) description of that connection. Does that make any sense at all? It's my new toy, and I'm playing with it. (Are we back to that sexual metaphor again, perchance?)

It is, for me, right now, precisely that gap between two things -- that gap of intrinsic connection, and the willingness to leave that connection unbridged -- that is the place of intense focus and arousal, the place where the poem happens. The willingness to accept paradox as truth without needing to force the paradox to some kind of resolution. That moment when I recognize a connection, a tiny little window into how the world is, is something I can represent (or try to represent) only in poetry, with its leaps and its gaps and its ability to embrace the non-linear. And for just that tiny little moment, whatever detail or fragment has set me off is brightly lit, illuminated, becomes all that matters in the world.


Also, it's easier than having to write lines that go all the way over to the other side of the page.


Diane Lockward said...

Ann--Check my blog. I've tagged you for a six word memoir.

Radish King said...

Absurd juxtaposition.

Collin said...

I do get a very satisfied feeling from writing a new poem, especially one that "works" even in the first draft. I don't think I've ever likened it to an orgasm, though. It's more like an itch to be scratched or it's an image running through my head like a broken record until I get it on a page.

I think there are all kinds of ecstasy, not just sex, and I try to tap into the feelings I have, such as when I step off a plane in England, or a piece of music, a passage in a book a moment in a film. Those kinds of things send massive pleasure impulses to my brain. That's why sets me off. Unless, I've had really good sex lately and I'm writing a poem about it. ;-)

Anne said...

Collin, funny, I wasn't even thinking in terms of "pleasure" or "ecstasy"! More that moment of ever so intense anticipation, really...

William said...

Wasn't that Doty article a wonderful read? I tore it out to put in my folder of articles to keep.

I also enjoyed the Tobias Wolff article and what he had to say about the Raymond Carver/Lish controversy.

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