Crossing the Blog Lines
OK – less of the open letter/personal journal for this post. I’m writing in response to an e-mail question about the schools of poetry, where I fit into them, and my background as a poet *plus* a general question on the ways to read a poem, which, given the context, seems to be a bit more about how to analyze poetry. That’s a damn tall order. Well, I’ve clicked on my manual stopwatch and the clock is running.
I started writing poetry when I was very young – 11 or so. I never took it all that seriously, never knew that there was such a thing as a living poet until high school. (My “living poets” were, as I suspect is the case for most people under the age of 40, actually music lyricists.) Anyway, my plan was to be a sculptor. That fell through for various reasons (long long story) and I became more and more enamored of poetry. By the time I was 19 I was writing and thinking about poetry every day. Kind of freakish, I suppose, but it’s a habit that continues to this day.
In college I studied under a noted Experimental poet, a noted Language Poet, and spent a year abroad studying with a few odd poetic birds in Scotland. I was able to hijack the English Lit program I was in and more or less mould it into a poetics program. During these years, I was pretty much inside the LangPo orbit, although I loved Frank Stanford, Yeats, Sexton, Milton, Crane, Thomas, Hopkins – really, my tastes were all over the map. Some people have an essential “touchstone” poet whose poetry and criticisms they most resonate with. If I had to pick the complete works of one poet (and only one poet) to take with me to a desert island, it would be Sam Coleridge’s. In addition to being a fine all-rounder, he was a watershed innovator via the Conversation Poems, and can easily be argued to be the father of modern poetics.
When I graduated I applied to a number of doctoral programs in English. I passed on the Poetics Program at SUNY Buffalo as I was beginning to be a bit disaffected with Language Poetry, which, as Bly cogently noted, was “long on theory.” Probably a good call. Instead I went to a Large State School, where I studied with a noted Formalist. While I was there I had sort of a poetry/academic (not mental) breakdown. I realized that I’d been going about things all wrong and left the program. Probably one of the smartest things I’d ever done, though it really felt awfully like chickening out at the time.
I moved to Boston and spent some time reading and studying on my own, then I returned to a Small Liberal Arts College to get my MFA in writing. Probably also one of the smartest things I’d ever done. I studied with a whole range of poets and visiting writers there, including people who were predominantly formal writers and several members of what is loosely called the Iowa School, which more or less dominates contemporary poetics.
The Iowa School is characterized by, generally, first person narrative lyrics focused on local (often domestic) issues. Generally the poems are judged as successful by how much they resist this local focus insofar as they set up metaphoric resonance to “larger” subjects and thus transcend mere anecdote. There’s a lot of rhetoric involved in crafting the poems, particularly when considering epiphanic disclosure as it resists overt confessionalism (which is generally disparaged among poets of my generation as being a bit cheap and easy).
I’d place myself loosely within the Iowa school, although some would (and have, actually) contest this. I tend to use persona/mask elements in my first person writing, and often write from the omniscient perspective. I favor tangible things over ideas – largely because the universal is always and only embodied in the concrete. My poems usually subvert the epiphanic elements in favor of soft-sell conclusions (I don’t like spelling things out past a certain point). I sometimes drift into the parablesque, or hyperbolic. Plus I’m a bit sonic heavy, a bit too structure heavy (refrains, mostly). I’m probably best known for my sound, and I view poems on the page much as I do plays or music on the page – either a record of what happened, or a template of what could happen, but not “the poem itself.” My work has drawn comparisons to Whitman, Hopkins, W.C.W., Kenneth Fearing, Roethke, and Lux. (This is just to place my aesthetics – no one would ever compare my work to, say, Dickinson, Owen, Eliot, Ginsberg, or Dobyns.)
There are other important elements that have impacted my writing, but this is pretty much the bare bones of my development as a poet and a rough suggestion of where you might categorically place me.
On how to read a poem – hmm. Well, the first thing you ought to do is to read the poem aloud. I can’t emphasize that enough. In many ways that’s the most crucial thing to do, and it’s the thing people resist the most, perhaps because they think reading aloud is perhaps something only children do, or because they’re embarrassed by their reading voice, or feel vaguely self-conscious about the whole enterprise.
However, reading aloud gives significant benefits. First off, it more or less guarantees you’ll experience the poem in the “time” that the poet intended it to be read in. It helps you hear the sonic elements of the poem (basically, the sounds the poet has chosen to work either hand in hand with or fight the meaning of the words). You also have a much better chance of adopting an appropriate tone for the voice (if you can’t spot, say, sarcasm, any ideational read is just dead in the water.) Lastly, it’s quite hard to misread if you’re working aloud.
In terms of how one interprets a poem, which was really what your question was leaning towards, well, there are all kinds of contemporary schools of poetry – to choose examples from dead schools, some, like the high moderns, would probably have liked nothing more for you to graph out their complex allusions, while others, say the Tang dynasty poets, would pretty much have cringed at that approach. One size does not fit all. If I had to guess at reasons why poetry is more or less dead in America, I’d have to say that a) haphazard interpretative approaches and b) a lack of reading, would be large factors in its decline.
Most poems have a kind of “top level” where the poem means what the poem says. Concentrate (not that it requires much concentration) on that and you’ll usually have a few keys suggested to you for unlocking the poem. When doing so, the basic point you ought to keep in mind is that the poem is not “shorthand” for anything else. It is itself. Per McLeish, the poem must “be,” and not “mean.”
Sorry to sound so “organic” but honestly, if you begin reading aloud (perhaps treating the poem as you would a monologue from a play, infusing it with character as it seems appropriate) you’ll have a solid foundation for any kind of more abstract reading.
Off to the coal mine,