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.


Anonymous said...

I confess that to me, poetry about poetry reminds me of the usual sort of perpetual motion machine arrangement, in which all the inputs are supplied by the machine itself, which must therefore ultimately reach zero——though it may fascinate along the way. Incidentally, I have never thanked you for teaching me to find the area of a triangle (until now).

Chris said...

I'd just as soon poetry not be about anything; being about is not what poetry does best. Leave that to the folks writing articles for the New Yorker.

But being about can be a carrot for poetry's stick. And being about poetry works as well as being about anything else, although being about anything else seems better.

Elisa Gabbert said...

I don't think I agree that poetry about poetry is for poets only--I can imagine being interested in a film about making films, or a photograph about photography, though I am not a photographer or a filmmaker.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for these comments, everyone.

I think you're right, Elisa. And for all we know, people who aren't artists at all might like the occasional poem about poetry. I was trying to be necessarily tentative in that comment by saying "may often be," but I think now I should put it another way: "Poetry about poetry runs the risk of being poetry that only poets will care about, although it's never possible to really know who might like a poem or why."

Chris, I appreciate the point that saying a poem is about, say, a single thing can be very limiting: "this is my poem about my father" and so on. Poems can be about lots of things simultaneously or move in multiple directions. That said, I don't think it's possible for a poem not to be about something. Even the most unconventionally non-representational works are still about something somewhere, in the way for instance that Tender Buttons deals with the environment of the home or Bruce Andrews' work questions conventional I-thou ideas about communication. And frankly even a poem that a writer wanted to be about nothing would give away all sorts of clues about how it positioned itself relative to the world. So in that sense there's no escape from subject matter however much one might want that--although I myself am not so sure why someone would want it.

There's the machine of poetry, anonymous, and also the machine of the world. The poems about poems that I find most interesting raise this dilemma in more provocative ways.

Nada said...

Um, all poems are about poetry, some a little less explicitly than others.

douglang said...


I agree with Nada.

When it comes to specific references to the act of writing, I would name Ted Berrigan as someone who incorporated being a poet and writing poetry into his material very well, and The Sonnets as a perfect example of writing about writing, even to the point of being a kind of instruction manual.

I think that this is an excellent topic to consider, even for someone half awake at 7:35 a.m. after maybe three hours of sleep.

mark wallace said...

Thanks for these comments, Nada and Doug.

Nada, I find your suggestion intriguing, but speaking for myself I'd need to know a little bit more about what you mean. I probably feel wary about saying all poems are about the same subject, even when that subject is poetry. But again that's maybe because I don't understand all the implications of your comment.

Certainly by being a poem, any poem takes its place in the history of poetry and thus can be seen to say something about what poetry is. So maybe it's just that I'm being more literal; I'm talking in this post about poems that set out with conscious intention to talk about poetry, like the Stevens' poems. Berrigan poems do that too, definitely.

Just to put the example in another context, and in case I'm not being clear, any number of rock songs talk about rock and roll directly, like the Stones "It's Only Rock and Roll," while another Stones song, say, "Factory Girl" is about living in a dead end industrial town. The second one may comment indirectly on what rock and roll can be and is, but for myself at least I don't think I could say that it's "about" rock and roll. And while there are some great rock and roll songs about rock and roll, writing about rock and roll can also sometimes be a sign of a band that has run out of ideas. Do poets run the same kind of risk? That's what I'm wondering about here.

Anonymous said...

Ultimately, I agree with Doug, Nada, et. al., in an anything goes kind of way. I guess I *prefer* to read something other than a poet writing poetry about writing poetry but to draw the line there, or anywhere, would be "folly." Speaking of folly, what about Beckett's piece, "What is the word?" I've always dug. Easily found by typing "Beckett" and the title into google.

I mean, the Beckett piece is about finding the word(s) -- the frustration of the word choice process, at times -- which is one thing -- maybe not what we're even talking about here -- whereas the poet writing about smoking a few cigarettes, drinking some coffee, and writing some poems, etc., can get tiring. "I'm hot shit," or whatever. Which might not be what we're talking about here.

Had Frank O'Hara "written a few poems" in his piece "The Day Lady Died," I, too, would've croaked. It's okay to see what the poets are doing in Ghana these days, though. (Get it?) Even as I love that poem and also find it a bit pretentious, simultaneously, he doesn't, doesn't, overtly refer to the act of he, F.O'H., writing poems. Good.

Mark Halliday, one of our "greatest poets" (cough cough) wrote one of the worst poems referencing poems poems, "Vegetable Wisdom." It's a huge, long mess of a thing to begin with, which climaxes with the phrase, "a tree's nobility is poemless." He then concludes the poem by averring: "One zucchini does not ask another zucchini for praise."

How does one say that unless one is, himself, a zucchini?

I'm hungry. Let's get a taco. Which is an old one, I confess.

----Blood And

K. Lorraine Graham said...

Hola Mark,

I'm pretty sure that I don't have any favorite poems that are about poetry specifically--but I'm also a bit brain dead at the moment, so it's possible I'm just not able to think of them. I can think of endless rock songs that are about rock (as you noted above) though. What *are* people's favorite poems that specifically address poetry? I'm no huge fan of Wallace Stevens work, myself...

Annandale Dream Gazette said...

I, too, agree with Nada.

All poems are to some degree and in some way about poetry, or about writing poetry. I think it's impossible to escape that at this point in history.

The stronger trend these days, in poetry that takes itself "seriously," is to be less explicit.

The poetry that acknowledges its own cursedness and inescapable self-consciousness is the stuff I like the best...I think, usually, anyway. In Flarf, it's done gleefully; in Conceptual poetry it's done thoughtfully; in Vispo it's; in work like Tao Lin's (don't know what they're calling that at this point) it's done flatly.

The thing that makes me squirm is when a poem is explicitly about poetry but the poet is unaware of where he or she is in history, & the poem is unaware of where it is in history as well, and is unaware of itself.

A poem can be about itself but unaware of itself.* That happens when a poet hasn't read much (that's why most poets squirm when they read the work they wrote when they were very young), or it can happen for other reasons.

*sorry to talk about "the poem" as if it were a little person. Not sure how else to express it though.

Annandale Dream Gazette said...

p.s. My poetry is almost always written to other poets.

mgushuedc said...

What about other arts? Is all painting more or less about painting. I don't think we should confuse the use of an art's tools with the subject(s) the art addresses. Hopper said all he was trying to do was paint the way sunlight fell on a wall.

But then artists, including Stevens, lie about what they're doing all the time.

I think this question is tangled up with the question "What is the purpose of poetry?" A question I do not know how to answer, but that is rarely raised concerning other arts. Perhaps because poetry is less economically rewarding, and requires less monetary investment, than other arts, both these questions are subject to more, acute inflammation?

sandrasimonds said...

I agree with Nada. I think that all poems are, firstly, about poetry. I mean even ones that profess not to be are engaged in a sort of artifice that only calls attention to the fact that they are poems--maybe even more so than those that are a direct address. My favorite poem about poetry is Marianne Moore's poem "Poetry" because she identifies herself with the confused reader and goes from there.

mark wallace said...

Thanks to all of you who have commented. I have to admit to being surprised about how many of you seem committed metapoets, in your various degrees and in various ways, obviously.

I think I probably remain committed to the idea that poetry can be about many things and is not about any of them either primarily or necessarily. I think I may feel a particularly powerful resistance to the idea that poetry is about itself. As mgush says, wouldn't saying that raise the question of whether every art, and indeed every thing, is primarily about itself, and what actually would that mean? I think I probably believe that things are always connected to other things and so are about those too, and not secondarily. I guess therefore I must be a skeptic about the isolated dynamic implied by saying that anything, including poetry, is about itself first.

If I was pushed to find a singular main thing that poetry is about, I would probably say that poetry is first and foremost about living in the world, in which case, again, poetry itself would be only one of poetry's many subjects.

Mgush, sometimes I feel like I have an answer to the question of what the purpose of poetry might be. The purpose of poetry is that it allows humans to explore their full potential for language. Sometimes complex, sometimes simple, poems are still constructions in which all kinds of language, from grocery lists to statistical charts to the most sophisticated linguistic pyrotechnics, might be brought together and pushed as far as they can go, or simplified, or distorted, as the case may be. No other social category of language allows that. In which case poems would also be the most open kind of language for explorations of the relation between language and world, while at the same time poems represent only some small portion of what language is.

Nick Piombino said...

Just before I read this I read a bunch of comments answering the question, "what is a failed poet," also interesting. I've been reading a 30 year old book by Christopher Lasch about narcissism- he seems upset about all the subjectivity and self-absorption going around. Well, I've always been a big fan of Ted Berrigan, but the fact is he was very young when he wrote those Sonnets. and If you've been a poet for more than a decade, you've spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about poetry so you can't go around pretending you haven't and have been spending all of your time mostly thinking about the big important issues discussed in the New York Times Book Review. So if that's what you think about a lot of the time (for example, is my poetry any good) and you still want to write more poetry (God knows why) you're going to include or indicate this in your poetry, if you want to be at all honest. But the fact is, no poet has much of a way of knowing that their poetry is successful a lot of the time, and by that I mean successful in the way that what they are doing is actually working for others, and therefore is more or less desired by others. This creates an awful dilemma, and leads to a lot of thinking, and naturally the poet wants to put at least some of that thinking to use in their writing. The other point I want to just mention is that I think that Lasch in his book on narcissism is wrong because to be a person right now is inordinately complex, because we are getting so much feedback all the time about how to be a person- that is, whether or not our personhood is successful, much more than if our poetry is successful. But for a poet, who often could give a flying f--k about whether their personhood is successful in a contemporary sense, of course this is going to make the whole situation immensely complicated. I hope I don't sound petulant. I'm trying so hard these days not to be petulant.

mark wallace said...

Your comments here certainly aren't petulant, Nick. They're really quite fascinating. For instance, he issue of "getting so much feedback all the time about how to be a person" definitely deserves more consideration.

Nick Piombino said...

Thanks, Mark. I appreciate your feedback and the opportunity to elaborate on my comments. For me, poets have made some of the strongest contributions to culture in their efforts to support the possibility of non-conformism. Yet, like anybody else, they must survive so they must conform. Such conformity can create a terrible sense of hypocrisy and doubt and lead to a personal crisis, not to speak of the cultural crisis they might feel forced to lend support to as a result. The role of poet is one of the few cultural roles left to those who care at all about honesty. To mask the resulting sense of vulnerability and the danger of being viewed as childishly naive, they (we) are forced to cover up many expressions of feeling and many accurate perceptions with irony, cynicism or excessive intellectuality; all of these, and other forms of defensiveness, can lead to an erosion of the culture changing powers of the poetic impulse. Think of Allen Ginsberg's leadership in the evocation of possible lifestyles from beat to gay to hippy to the confrontation of corruption and cruelty in government. This was not political leadership, it was the application of poetic perception into social action by means of utilizing the social role of the poet courageously, as opposed to merely or mainly going along with the expected behavior of the successful careerist. Brilliant behavior on the part of a poet cannot only be expressed through verbalized ideas. At its best and most powerful it is a kind of social theater that influences by means of applied poetic energy the notion of what a person can be. As much as anyone else, or more, a poet's actions speak louder or at least as loud as their words. Whatever a poet's theoretical positions about what constitutes a person might be, what future readers will notice is the relationship between what they said, wrote and how they lived. And this very much includes that they wrote and how they lived, and how the resultant inevitable conflicts are revealed and depicted in the style, content and structure of their work. ...Sheez, I hope I am playing the cranky Polonius to yon poet-Hamlets.

Nick Piombino said...

Oops, I meant to say, I hope I am NOT playing the cranky Polonius yon poet-Hamlets.