amongst books

amongst books

Friday, April 25, 2014

On Perfection in Poetry & the Need to Hoard One’s Poems

At a spring poetry event, I was flummoxed as I always am by statements from all the poets during a Q&A session to the effect that they shared only poems of theirs that they believed to be good & what self-respecting poet would ever inflict poems on a reader or an audience unless these poems were the poet’s best work.

Granted the poets were on the spot & these Q&A sessions always bring out the worst possible answers because who has time to think & there’s an audience etc. However, this sort of attitude towards poetry has always intimidated me, for one & bothered me, for another.

I can speak only for myself & would never dare presume that my opinions on poetry or any other subject applied to anyone else, but this is what I think:

1.       The point of any art form for me is to provoke, disturb & start a conversation or a monologue. I suppose one can argue that a good poem doesn’t necessarily have to be a perfect poem, but for me, even the idea that I have to keep my poems to myself til they’ve reached some level of exactly right-ness, is scary & daunting. that is never going to happen. I am simply never going to be satisfied with anything that I write to the point that I won’t feel vulnerable when I share it. but by sharing the work, I am hoping that it will resonate with someone who might be able to find something in it that makes them think or makes them feel or a combo thereof. Ideally this person is also a creative person who might be able to try out whatever I’ve done or some variation thereof for themselves, thereby improving it.

2.       I don’t see myself as an isolated poet but rather one in a long line of poets. others have shared what they have learned & I have learned from them. I will share what I have learned & hope that others will learn from me. the body of our creation will lead to something strong & ingenious.

3.       I think editors can be helpful if they help the poet to achieve what she is setting out to do, but not to protect the poet from making a fool of herself. that, I’m afraid, is a given. I can’t care about that sort of thing. to share what crazy nonsense beats in my heart is a vulnerable thing to do & there’s no going around that. I don’t want editors to protect me from world opinion of me as a quirky git.

4.       I ran across an interesting article in the online edition of the New Yorker entitled “Woolf’s Darkness”  written by the brilliant Rebecca Solnit, author of a favourite book of mine, “A Field Guide to Getting Lost.” The article was about Virginia Woolf’s essays & her tendency toward the uncertain. Solnit also talked about Keats’ Negative Capability: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

The idea to me is that the poet has to leave space for uncertainty, for not knowing. All of  this controlling & sharing only the best poems & hoarding one’s poems in the attic until they are “ready” for the public seems to me to be not leaving room for uncertainty.

Solnit goes on to say...

“A similar kind of aggression against the slipperiness of the work and the ambiguities of the artist’s intent and meaning often exists in literary criticism and academic scholarship, a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate, to classify and contain. What escapes categorization can escape detection altogether.

There is a kind of counter-criticism that seeks to expand the work of art, by connecting it, opening up its meanings, inviting in the possibilities. A great work of criticism can liberate a work of art, to be seen fully, to remain alive, to engage in a conversation that will not ever end but will instead keep feeding the imagination. Not against interpretation, but against confinement, against the killing of the spirit. Such criticism is itself great art.

This is a kind of criticism that does not pit the critic against the text, does not seek authority. It seeks instead to travel with the work and its ideas, invite it to blossom and invite others into a conversation that might have previously seemed impenetrable, to draw out relationships that might have been unseen and open doors that might have been locked. This is a kind of criticism that respects the essential mystery of a work of art, which is in part its beauty and its pleasure, both of which are irreducible and subjective. “


I want poetry to be slippery. I want it to open up the work rather than be closed to a world of potential meanings, emotions & associations. I want to show my uncertainty, to reflect my confusion with the world, with life’s purpose, with the day to day meanderings of my tiny mind. I’m not waiting to share my work. I’m sharing it now. Life’s too short to wait.

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