The category of experience is seldom defined or questioned; as a concept, it's more like a wink or a nudge in the ribs. But those who uphold it as a value seem to want to appeal to a shared sense of humanity—an unspoken agreement that despite our many cultural, racial, sexual, and economic differences, we all are born, live, and die. In this new, graciously multicultural universalism, the category of "experience" wants to provide a comforting sense that we're all in this together—and that we can, at least, agree on what "this" might be. And of course, "experience" wants even more to be the sine qua non for writing the type of poetry that will speak to "people" and not "just poets."
But as the messy legacy of the American poets known as the Confessionals—particularly Lowell, Plath, and Sexton—the thirst for experience reveals its own fundamental contradictions. Plath died at thirty: from the perspective of anyone but the teenaged, how experienced could she really have been? Sexton and Lowell, for their parts, lived the life of economic privilege—which placed them, in Wordsworthian terms, "at a distance from the kind." The writing of both Plath and Sexton was, to a great degree, forged by their struggle with what Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique called "the problem that has no name": the mind-numbing burden of domesticity faced by women in an America that had yet to undergo the changes brought about by Second-Wave feminism. Can this be what is touted as "lived experience"?
The category of experience seems to promise a place for everyone: like Walt Whitman, it wants to invite all of us to dinner. But it's clear that many readers simply can't identify with the life stories of Lowell, Plath, and Sexton. And though one could easily follow R.D. Laing and claim that mental illness itself is a voyage of discovery, it's not clear how such a voyage, as articulated in the work of the Confessionals, would feed into the common construction of experience as a shared and democratic value.
Fascinatingly, the contemporaneous New York School, who were chattier than the Confessionals and just seemed to have a lot more fun, played down the role of experience in writing. As O'Hara so succinctly put it, "Nobody should experience anything they don't need to, if they don't need poetry bully for them." Or Ashbery's ruminations in an interview with Kenneth Koch: "We seem to be determined both to discuss poetry and not to discuss anything at all. This is probably what we do in our poetry. I only wish I knew why we feel it to be necessary."
An even better indictment of experience-as-value comes in Ashbery's "And Ut Pictura Poesis Is Her Name." There he inimitably asserts that for the poet, "Certainly whatever funny happens to you/ Is OK." In this mock ars poetica, "whatever" becomes both everything and nothing—and the wisdom to know the difference. Kay Ryan has seconded this motion by pressing "the importance to the poet of avoiding or ignoring Kodak moments." In an essay that celebrates the habitual or "novelty-free life," Ryan lauds the least entropic state of being: "Your memory will be deep, quiet, undifferentiated as a pool. Change will enter and twist like a drop of ink, the tiniest bit of new per old."
Perhaps it is precisely that near-invisible shimmer in the old that draws me to certain poets rather than others. I admit that I'm often thrilled by the poets of no experience: no experience at all, if experience is defined in the popular, unexamined way. For people immune to literature, Emily Dickinson "didn't have a life." After a year at Mount Holyoke, she embarked on what can only be called, experience-wise, an early retirement in her twenties. As for Wallace Stevens, how boring can it be to walk to your job at an accident and indemnity company (in Hartford, no less), year in and year out? From this perspective, both were writing books—or fascicles—on "nothing," much as Flaubert sought to do when he began to incubate the book that would become Madame Bovary. Yet we don't fault these poets for their lack of experience, for their humdrum and muted lives, for not having lived enough in the world (wherever we think that may be). For me, a certain contemporary parallel is found in the marvelous work of Charles Wright, which reads as a paean to the limited-experience life. If read collectively, his selected Negative Blue paints a portrait of someone who has done little more—experientially—than sit alone in his own backyard for decades.
Still, experience has long provided a dubious litmus test for poetry, and not just in the American tradition. When Rilke's friend Ellen Key told him that his work "smacked of the writing desk," she clearly meant that it reflected too little actual experience. The poet's aversion to sustained relationships is well-known, as is his avoidance of service during the First World War. Isn't it funny, then, that Rilke's poetry has been popularly seen—even prescribed—as the poetry of experience: the poetry of weddings, funerals, and, according to Rilke scholar Judith Ryan, German soldiers' comfort at the front during both the First and Second World Wars?
So the poetry that, for some, lacks experience can be embraced as the quintessential poetry of experience by others. And the poetry forged in what we might consider to be genuinely hefty experience—manual labor, for example—can also easily become its own template or formula: something just as repeatable as the oft-lamented "academic" poem. If Wright has repeated himself—much as Dickinson repeated herself—the same could be said of a poet like Philip Levine, who is often looked to as a quintessential contemporary poet of experience. Clearly, then, having "experience" doesn't void the risk of repetition in poems. Poetry that is "novelty-free," in Kay Ryan's terms, may be a function of self-actualization in the work, regardless of how much recognizable experience that work does or does not reflect.
The longer I look, the more the category of "experience" dissolves before my eyes. I'm happy to see that dissolution, since it's a fitting prelude to another intimately related argument: one for the viability of reading as a version of, or a substitute for, "lived experience." Calvino's If On A Winter's Night a Traveler provides a good model for what I'm talking about. There, the allegorical Writer and Reader are two separate people: the first male, the second female. Lately I've envied this Reader her fly-by-night quality, her ability to lose herself so irresponsibly in books. But if I superimpose the one allegorical figure upon the other, I end up with a viscerally viable, albeit cartoonish, prescription for who the writer is—or should be, or could be. 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?
Here is where the university, the proverbial elephant in the room, comes in. Many believe universities fail poets, particularly younger poets, by depriving them of experience. This is said categorically of the MFA and other graduate degrees, as well as of academic positions that now support many poets as teachers and writers. Academia becomes, in this model, a sort of double Procrustean bed. We're told repeatedly that graduate programs in creative writing produce poets who crank out the same, experience-challenged, cookie-cutter verse. But do education and "lived experience" have to be so ineluctably incompatible? That question is almost never asked. And few, if any, seem to wonder whether universities are failing poets by not educating them enough, or widely enough—or later, by requiring them to teach only in the workshop model. What if experience were not the missing ingredient after all?
I've thought a lot about this question because, though I'm hardly leading the escapist life of Calvino's Reader, I too am a Reader of sorts: Reader for this magazine. As such, I see an enormous quantity of work by poets who are hoping for publication. Ironically, it often seems that it's an inability to get past one's own experience that causes many of these poems to founder. For the beginner, it's the rather narcissistic belief that, to switch Ashbery a bit, "whatever melodramatic happens to you/Is OK." But even in certain, yes, more experienced poets, there can be an impulse around the anecdotal—around travel, around the family, around "events"—that, if not reworked in what Veronica Forrest-Thomson called the "internal expansion" of the poem, burns as the steady flame of ordinariness.
What's missing in much of the work I see is an ability to distinguish experience from occasion: what I'll define here as the prime mover of the poem, be it based in the poet's empirical life, in imagination, in the jurr of language, in literary texts. Yes, it can even be anecdotal, as in the infamous "I placed a jar in Tennessee." It's the opening, the antechamber of the poem that invites us into the occasion that will, we hope, master us as readers. Consider these openings—how they happen, and how little you can resist them: "I heard a fly buzz—when I died"; "Again last night I dreamed the dream called Laundry"; "My black face fades"; "Yes, it's a joke—in the florist's dictionary"; "flower is becoming the graph." Infinite, the snares of occasion. And polyglot. One of them is even taken from the book whose well-intentioned but ultimately misguided blurb I quoted at the outset of this essay.
Though the term may seem old-fashioned to some, occasion manages to crash the party of even the least referential of poetic schools. The best way I know to get a feel for this—what others might call integrity or bloom or motor—is not necessarily to go out and have an exciting life that you can write about in your work. Instead, I think, it's the ability to read widely enough to know which poetic occasions stir you: be they empirical, imaginative, aleatory, linguistic, discursive—and how various and transhistorical are poems' means to stir. So to argue against the litmus test of experience is not necessarily to argue, as did Eliot, for the extinction of the personality. It's also not to claim that I wouldn't drive the red Ferrari, if I had a license. Instead, it's to note that poetic occasion may not always be the result of "lived experience" per se. Understanding this will open the door to the younger poet who, like Mark Yakich, "divides his time between the bedroom and the kitchen." At the risk of coining yet another new universalism, maybe this is precisely the sort of experience we should all want to have.