Thursday, June 16, 2005

Context

Been thinking a lot about context in the poetic sense, more than just the opposite of text on a page: con-text; but the sense of the poet in the realm of the culture (or dare I say industry) of poetry, and the poem itself in the sense of its place and time.

Before going further, though, some good news to share: Terry Tempest Williams has agreed to be interviewed for the forthcoming issue of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments, which comes out in September. It's our "Metropolitan Mosaic" issue, and the interview is a relatively new regular feature (the first two: 1> Danish poet Lene Henningsen, and 2> New Urbanism founder and architect Stefanos Polyzoides). I'll be doing the interview (though it's conducted electronically), which means I need to brush up considerably on my Williams. So tonight I began reading The Open Space of Democracy, a series of essays published just before the November elections.

Which brings me to a really-not-at-all-related subject, the movie Batman Begins. You see, I read the first essay of the book, "Commencement," while sitting in the theater this evening prior to the movie. Folks, Batmin Begins lives up to the hype and then some. Quite simply, it rocks! So does the book so far, though of course in a much different way, not to mention context.

Which brings us back to the subject at hand....

Earlier today I read Christina Pugh's essay "No Experience Necessary" in the current (at least online) issue of Poetry. It was a good read for me at this particular time because of these internal banterings spinning my head (and now on my blog, I suppose) of how much one needs to know about poetry to write good poetry, and how much the context of the poem matters to the overall success of the poem (success itself being a construct of context). Put another way, does a writer of poems need to be well-versed in the history and evolution of poetry to write good poetry? Does an artist have to be educated in art history to be a good artist? Does a poem need its context explained to be fully appreciated? Does a poet need a context of the poetic profession, formal or informal, to be a poet?

Pugh asked and subsequently answered a related question in her essay: Does experience matter for the poet? Is today's "feeling of disappointment or outrage," especially of the work of younger poets, a cause of a lack of experience? Pugh's answer (and please turn away if you don't want me to give it away) is simply no. Experience, fundamentally, is what we make of it. The trips between the kitchen and the bedroom, or swashbuckling on the open seas---for the poet, Pugh contends that the degree of the experience is not as important as how widely read the poet is. Or, as she writes, "Might it be that what is missing in the work of some younger poets is not 'experience' at all, but reading that is deep enough to effect changes in the self?"

So I wonder for both the poet and the poem, does context matter? Fundamentally, for me at least, will I be a better poet if I take an academic route (like the MFA, for example)? Or even on a lesser degree, if I start to read a lot more on the theory of poetry (as opposed to simply reading more poetry)? Similarly, is the poem better if it is explained to the listener/reader, and is that even possible? Certainly in readings poets have the opportunity to provide a context for the listening of the poem, but generally not when the poem is in a journal.

There is, I think, more of a context in a collection of poems in a book or chapbook (print or online), if only in the poem's relationship to other poems by the same poet. That's in part why I like to publish sets of poems from poets in Terrain.org---we get more of a context, more of a sense for the poetry and therefore the poet. And yet, clearly, a poem must stand on its own. While we foster sets, we will only publish one poem from a poet if that's all that we like. So the context, in this sense, doesn't override the quality of the poem itself.

And yet, to what degree is the quality of the poem affected by its context? Indeed, does a poem, by itself in a journal, have a context? I remember a workshop I took once many moons ago at the Bethesda Writer's Center. I had written the second in a series of Charles Darwin letter poems, and began to explain thusly when the instructor stopped me and asked me to read the poem to the other participants without explaining it. The poem had to stand on its own---had to "make it" as a poem first and foremost.

So for me, returning to the craft after what is in effect a ten-year hiatus (and my newer poetry must reflect that---except for the most part I think/hope that I've nearly picked up where I left off, in part because the well still feels like it overfloweth and I am writing a lot; I realize this is a trap, mind you), I'm questioning very much my role in the industry of poetry. Not what difference I can make, but how much I want to submerge myself in its nautical light. Should I restrain myself, and take a sort of trail on the beach, like Wallace Stevens who was an insurance executive rather than an academic? Or should I throw myself fully in, drinking the salty water and growing gills, not only following the conversations like that between Jake Adam York and Jonathan Mayhew at Jake's blog, but partaking fully of them?

Part of that is answered quite clearly in this blog, in its joining of the community of poets with whom I've already interacted simply because of having a blog and responding to their blogs. So there's that context, certainly. Part of it is answered by the fact that I just sent in for a three-year subscription to Poetry. (Perhaps that in and of itself makes me part of the franchise?)

And a notable part is also that while I haven't been writing consistently over the last ten years, I have still been reading, though not reading as widely as I am now. As editor of Terrain.org, of course, I see lots of submissions, both good and bad. The good submissions get multiple reads. And I have continued to subscribe to Poets & Writers, so I get the general news, even if I only skim it.

And a hefty part of it will be decided some time next spring, when I'll receive a decision---if I apply, and it's likely I will---on acceptance into an MFA creative writing program (and I'll only be seeking entry into one specific program).

In the end---or rather, in the beginning and in the middle---we shall see. Maybe this questioning, like poetry itelf, is what it's all about.

Simmons

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