Sunday, June 29, 2008
Poetry about Poetry
Speaking of Narcissus, what do you think about poems that are all or in part about poetry itself? I have mixed feelings and I’m trying to understand why.
Certainly there are some well-known poems with famous lines that talk about poetic processes or philosophies of composition. For instance Wallace Stevens’ “The poem is the cry of its occasion” from “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,” or Robert Creeley’s “Speech/ is a mouth” from the poem “Language.” Stevens of course writes poetry about poetry frequently, since his poems often theorize about what it means to construct a human understanding of the world in an age when a transcendent ground for meaning has been lost. With the idea of God abandoned but not forgotten, “Poetry is the supreme fiction,” as Stevens says in “A High-Toned Old Christian Woman,” struggling to regain something it can’t have back and acknowledging finally that it can’t. Creeley in his poem wants to emphasize the materiality of language and how that materiality is connected to the physical facts of bodies and their histories: words full/of holes/aching.” So these are poems that deal with theories of what it means to create poems and how the creation of poems interacts with the world.
I’ve written some poems that reference the act of creating poetry. Often that’s been because writers, and writing, are part of the psycho-social landscapes I’m exploring. I want to make clear that processes of writing and the problems of thinking of oneself as a writer are caught up in other material processes and can’t really be ignored or denied if one wants to respond thoroughly to the situation at hand. The poem can’t be outside the situation, commenting on it; instead it’s caught up in the situation. But I haven’t often written a whole poem about poetry, except in my first years writing poetry when I was still trying to figure out how poems worked. I mean, I’m still trying to figure that out, but I don’t as often write it down so directly.
All that said, I can see many potential pitfalls in writing a poem about poetry. It can be done in an uninterestingly insular and self-absorbed way. It could turn easily into a redundant essay or exercise in craft, the tedium of craft discussing craft. The subject matter isn’t automatically the most fascinating topic for a poem either, except perhaps to some poets and critics. Poetry about poetry may often be poetry mainly for poets, and the idea of poets writing poetry about poetry for other poets makes me a little claustrophobic. Or at least would if it was done too often. Actually that may be part of why, as impressive as he can be, I don’t love Wallace Stevens’ work, along with the fact that I’m not nearly as worried as he is about the loss of transcendent unity. Often there’s something a bit arid about Stevens’ concerns, too much worrying about the isolated imagination and not enough of the world. Get out of the house a bit more Wallace, okay?
So what makes the difference between a poem that includes worthwhile mentions of poetry and one that doesn’t? Maybe just that its insights and pleasures are intriguing? Maybe in that sense there’s no difference between writing a poem that’s about poetry and writing one about anything else, that it’s just a matter of what the poem reveals to us. But does it require worthwhile insight just into poetry itself, or does it need insight into the connection between poetry and what isn’t poetry? Does it need to show us something about how poetry interacts with the world?
I’m almost tempted to say there’s no value in asking this question in a general way, that as usual it’s better to look at particular poems and see what they’ve done. But whether there’s value in it or not it’s a question I’m still asking myself. And I think I’m asking it because it’s a question about what we want from poetry as either readers or writers. And of course about what we want from poetics, from critical theorizing about poetry.
Have any favorite poems about poetry? Have concerns or an axe to grind? I’d appreciate hearing from you because I’m not yet done thinking again about this one. But I don’t want to think about it too endlessly. A poet thinking too much about poems about poems is likely to get on everybody’s nerves.