My last semester at Mills, I sent my MFA thesis to O Books out of a combination of Why not? and Just maybe… I was fortunate enough to receive a detailed response with feedback from the late Leslie Scalapino. I’d included a standard cover letter with some throwaway description of the general theme. One sentence of her response has always stuck with me:
Meaning this as a very positive remark, I don’t think you should describe this text as being about teaching, or ‘about’ anything because it goes past such categories of subjects and the description severely limits.
Her advice resurfaces every time people ask me: what I’m writing about, if I can provide background on what I just published/read, what the title means.
I came across an opinion piece on poetry in The New York Times (such news!) a year or so ago and reveled in this anecdote:
T.S. Eliot, who, when asked to interpret the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day…” from his poem “Ash Wednesday,” responded, “It means ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree in the cool of the day.’ ”
His response conveys a poet’s truth while affirming an insider/outsider status of poetry: If you don’t get it, teach yourself how to get it, if you can; maybe, Reader, this is all too much for you. It’s both undeniable—of course the way of telling and the meaning are inseparable in this medium—and embarrassingly snooty.
I will never forget the graduate school classmate, a poet whose work I have long respected, who wrote on my workshop submission that my pieces were, among other things, “blissfully undemocratic.” I grew up listening to my parents read random excerpts from the dictionary at the dinner table, and I’d based a series of poems on obsolete words whose texture appealed to me. My classmate asserted that any poem requiring a dictionary reinforced socioeconomic barriers.
That workshop, and maybe my Mills cohort as a whole, had a gestalt sense of political context overriding the poem as gnarled, artistic artifact. I came into the program worshiping no particular school, but admiring the likes of Lucie Brock-Broido, whose work is nothing if not gnarled artifact. I still have Brock-Broido’s “When the Gods Go, Half-Gods Arrive” tacked up next to my desk, along with excerpts from Lyn Hejinian, Stephen Ratcliffe, Noah Eli Gordon, Juliana Spahr, Louise Glück, and others.
In 2007, I had the good fortune to see Paul Hoover & co. give a panel at AWP in Atlanta called “In Defense of Difficulty.” By then I had graduated and survived the semester of trying to make my work blissfully democratic (and, thankfully, given up on that charade). “Difficult” work does have political value in the face of anti-intellectual, democracy-undermining intrusions in the name of the War on Terror, Hoover & Chernoff & others told the intimate audience. Across the hall in the expansive ballroom, John Barr of the Poetry Foundation talked about “recognizing and championing…a new poetry…based on lived experience,” making it accessible, less exclusive. The Difficulty panel spoke directly to the chasm between the two rooms and their divergent visions of art’s possibility. I scrawled frantic notes in my program, fragments of the papers presented, and thought, Oh, yeah. Let’s get to work.
If difficult poetry (read: dense, “experimental,” non-narrative, not conforming to prose conventions, multi-layered, non-linear, and so on…) does ultimately serve a democratic purpose, is there a responsibility on the part of the poet to go beyond writing the difficult piece and annotate it? I don’t think so, but I also don’t think it fundamentally undermines the work to talk about or around it. I hold Scalapino’s advice to be true—it’s not productive to say My poem/book/work is “about” ________. But it may be productive to explore some of the poem’s context, some of the textual/cinematic/historical/musical references not as a way of explaining but of inviting readers in and promoting conversation. (What might T.S. Eliot have done with the hyperlink while annotating The Wasteland?)
There’s no decoder ring for sped because it isn’t a code to crack. But as a multivocal work drawing from dozens of sources, there is a structural aspect built of real fragments, with room for the reader to juxtapose the pieces and create new meanings. I have intentionally created some. I discover others as I revisit the poems, resonances and themes that I didn’t consciously create. The book is obsessive, the result like a worry stone worn shiny, but it’s also filled with cracks, space, possibility. I want to riff on some of the fragments and their possibilities here.
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