Tuesday, August 01, 2006

I remember one of the most productive moments in my first poetry MFA workshop was when a discussion arose regarding a poet's intention. Was it possible to write without an intention? If you have an intention in any given poem, what is it? How does that form the poem? Mind you, I remember the subject was abruptly cut short in order to get to everyone's work (one of my chief complaints about workshops). But we went around the room, asking each of us what we wanted our writing to do. Those who had answers said any number of things--to explore language, to evoke emotion. My answer, and it still is, is to tell a story. Not always a whole story. Maybe just part of a story, just a trace of a story. Sometimes, it sort of feels like a copout. A all too ready response to the question, "what did you intend this to do?" or the dreaded and annoying "why did you write this poem?" Of course, secretly, I think this isn't a question that should really be asked. My intent doesn't have a lot to do with it (sorry, those New Critical roots engrained in college)...perhaps in context of a workshop where we're discussing whether it succeeds, but really, I'm more interested in what the poem does without me. I'm not the least bit necessary. Nevertheless, I've found myself answering the question more than once with "I wanted to tell a story," which in a few cases had met with some odd, even confused looks.

I'll admit, I started off as a fiction writer. That was the initial impulse. But I'm better at poetry somehow. More precision, less space to wander. In my one and only fiction workshop as an undergrad, I was told that my sentences were too long, to complicated, too convoluted. And they were. Horribly so. I think I need the discipline poetry affords, for whatever reason. Poems are also instant gratification, it being much easier for me to maintain control over a poem than a ten page short story. For that control freak in me to be satisfied. And there's so much more freedom with what can be done in a poem, and concentrated in such a small frame of language.

What's funny though is I do not really set out with a definite story in mind, except maybe in the case of the latest project. I typically start with the language and allow the story to come from what I have. I work a lot with collaging words and phrases and fragments together from my notes, these days moreso than initially. Sometimes with an initial idea behind what I want the poem to touch on, sometimes without. Often it goes in another direction entirely. Often I have to scrap it all and start over. But as I go, something develops, the story starts to take shape, however fragmented or incomplete.

I think in the the fever almanac poems, at least the ones written through 2003, I was more driven in what I wanted to tell, what I wanted to get on the page. The later poems were written more like how I write now---the collaging, a more random sense of composition (which oddly satisfies me more--to create something from nothing rather than something from a preconceived idea.). The whole book, however, feels like a group of interconnected snippets of narrative, sometimes, overlapping, sometimes, struggling with each other. As individual poems, they tell a small piece, or fragment of a story. As a whole they resonate off the others toward a cumulative effect. feign is much the same way, though many of these poems are more less about narrative and more about thematic idea. But there's still stories in the poems, perhaps even more erratically wrought than in the other book. The poems often come off as more instructions, allegories, with a little bit of narrative woven in, but all pointing toward the thematic arc. I also noticed a few months back a difference in the speakers of these poems. While the fever almanac is all about memory vs.language, these speakers have no memory and exist entirely in the present.

I have a feeling that some people will like the poems in feign better than the fever almanac, because they avoid this sense of narrative. Particularly in the academic poetry world, or my little corner of the academic world, "narrative" is a dirty little word, often used dismissively or derogatorily. By other's who are looking for that little bit of thread, the fever almanac is probably more satisfying. Me? I don't know. I like both, but I think they work in different ways. The new manuscript on the other hand, girls show,seems to be heading back to those narrative urges, again, overlapping stories, though this time intentional, and not so much serendipitous as with the first book. This time I'm writing the book from the beginning, so I imagine it will either be better or worse because of it.

The thing which intrigues me most about feign and girl show is that they are creating their own little worlds., while the older manuscript just exists in this one. They're much fantastical, more surreal. They work with a lot of the same symbols, tropes, images, but the poems are stranger. Also leaner, meaner. But they also ask more of the reader.

However, the problems with narrative poetry:

1. imposes a structure on events. Is typically, by default, linear. This happened. Then this. Then this.

2. implies a single, authoritative, credible speaker or voice who can be trusted to relay that structure.

I would also add that it usually lacks a certain lyricism and attention to langauge, but so does alot of non-narrative poetry. I'm interested more in the above considerations, however. How they mesh with Cixous' ecriture feminine? How do more experimental narrative approaches deal with this?

Over at the PoetryFoundation Site, there's a discussion that touches a little on the whole language as vehicle, language as material discussion. For me this sort of gets at what I see as the primary difference between poetry and prose--that transparency of language. When I read a novel, usually I'm reading for story, what's happening, for plot. Granted certain novels are more poetic in their attention to language, and I enjoy this as well. I read trashy horror/mystery novels much differently than I read "serious" fiction, plus I read alot in-between stuff. One intends for the language to dissappear, be seemless (except in just downright BAD writing, which calls attention to itself in the other extreme.) the other, for the writer to become attenuated to it's language. Successful fiction treads this line really well. Some fiction, including my own attempts, however get to bogged down in beautiful sentences, in beautiful language, that they become incomprehensible and lose sight of the story they're trying to tell. Lose the reader in the labyrinth.

Poetry, on the other hand, needs to do the same, though the scales may need to be tipped the other way. What I hate is proseyness in poetry. Language that is used in a rather mundane way to relate events or emotions, but isn't conscious of itself as anything other than a sentence by sentence account. This is my beef with folks like Billy Collins and Ted Kooser, and all their discussions of accessibility. Not because I think poetry needs to be difficult, but because I think poetry needs to be "poetic"--engaged with language materially, no matter what it's trying to say.And yes, you have to work harder to process that sort of thing as opposed to everyday prose. The poor poet tries to get his idea, or plot, or image, across by using language asmerely a vehicle, without dealing at all with the layers and depths of meaning, sound, syntax and construction. The good poet takes all these into account and has something to offer beyond that--idea, voice, image. The guts of poetry, the WHAT.

In terms of narrative, I'm thinking of the epic poets, who by necessity, did not just ramble everyday speech into stories, but made verbal constructions dependent on memorability--rhythm, rhyme, repetition. Still, the narrative was the point historically, really, the rest just the framework. After the "invention" of fiction and the novel as a vehicle for narrative, poetry was free to develop into something else. What that something else IS however, is what no one ever agreed on. The lyric "I"/contemporary narrative/ (language as vehicle for self, story, emotion) vs. language poets/the avante garde (language as material), and all their various manifestations. Not quite that clear cut--all sorts of folks in between, Modernists, surrealists, objectivists, ellipticists, leaning one way or the other.And even poets within those two poles not the same at all. So what about narrative, how does narrative in poetry succeed and go where fiction does not/cannot? Does it need to? What are the obligations of the poet in regard to narrative in terms of language as vehicle and materiality?

Another thing touched on in the conversation is the idea of the unified whole, or self, which is also one of the concerns regarding narrative poetry. I like the quote from Hejinian: "One is not oneself. One is several, incomplete, and subject to dispersal." How the sense of cultural or political displacement alienates the speaker from language, which is what Hong is getting at. And this all has alot in common with ecriture feminine, in terms of women writers. Notions of the fractured self manifested in syntax, an absence of linearity, fragmentation.

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