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Journal, Day Four
“You may not like my stuff, I’m kind of a nature poet,” a student said at the beginning of our conference today. I instantly wondered which of my anti-nature poems she’d been reading. “A good poem is a good poem,” I said even as I wondered who decides the “kind” of poet we are to be? The poet Bob Wrigley lives in rural Idaho (all of Idaho is rural) and often writes about animals. His book titles, for example, include: Lives of the Animals and Reign of Snakes. And the big clue: in his author photos he’s often outside!! Still, I knew I’d made a mistake calling him “a nature poet” to his face once. I backtracked: “Oh yes, there’s a lot of other stuff in your poems, my bad.” Fitting Wrigley on the Nature shelf is as problematic as fitting me on the—actually I don’t know the name of my shelf . . .
Can the poet claim a style and still claim to resist categorization? Should a poet bother claiming a style? (No.) If categories are unavoidable, does it make more sense to categorize the style of the poem and not the style of poet? Writing nature poems does not make one a nature poet, just as a poet who experiments is not necessarily experimental. It makes sense that a poet would resist these labels, if only because they imply one’s approach to poetry is fixed.
The wish to categorize may be an inherent part of reading and comprehension. Maybe it’s bound to a wish for clarity—a clear sense of order (organization/direction). More often than not categories lead to presumptions. The easiest example would be the problems in reading a lyric poem as if it were a narrative poem. Since a poem rarely announces itself as narrative or lyric, a reader can be forgiven for making certain assumptions before entering a poem. But to exit a poem with the same assumptions, is obviously a fairly limited engagement. What seems to be an effort to comprehend is often an effort to impose a narrow meaning or to strip meaning away. I’m thinking about the dynamics of the typical workshop of course, but I’m also thinking about the broader implications of a fixed “standard of excellence” in art. Such an illusion of good and bad allows a reader to insist the problems are always with the poem and not, at least to some degree, with how the reader has read the poem. It is like listening to Bach and saying it’s bad because it has no rap or guitars. Obviously as a different style of music, it requires a different set of criteria.
The way we judge a “nature poem” should not be the way we judge what I’ve heard called an “urban poem.” (Did you know “urban” replaced “inner city” which replaced “ghetto” which replaced “black”?) I’d argue that even the criteria specific to a “performance poem” differ from the criteria specific to a “spoken word” poem. Of course such an array of styles means a reader is expected to constantly shift and mix perspectives. Not just from style to style, but poem to poem. That’s a good thing. Jay-z has been mixed with the Beatles; Biggie Smalls has been mixed with Frank Sinatra—it is possible to value two very different things at once. No reader should want a poet to be one thing. No poet should want to be one thing; to have one style. This is why we’re looking for the “urban nature poem” (I think Major Jackson’s Urban Renewal poems come closest to such a thing). And we’re looking for the child of Gertrude Stein and Billy Collins; the child of Lucille Clifton and Wallace Stevens. Imagine those children. Imagine their poems.