April 2010 Discussion Guide

Call and Response

Everything you wanted to know about poetry but were afraid to ask.

Call and Response

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The April 2010 issue of Poetry—like all issues before it—raises questions. More unusually, it also provides answers. After each poem, the Poetry editors interview its writer about his or her work; the poets’ responses both illuminate individual poems and reveal more general perspectives on poetics. But the questions don’t end there.

As I read the magazine, I found myself pondering the nature of a Q&A about poems. Do poems prompt sufficient cogitation and revelation without follow-up dialogues? Are confusion and wonderment part of the joy of reading—or are offerings of background information more satisfying? And can there be a joy to misreading and misunderstanding, or to formulating interpretations that fly in the face of a poet’s intention?

In Pale Fire, Nabokov’s pet poet, John Shade, constructs a theory of life and death based on a misreading. He clings to it even after realizing his error:

Life Everlasting—based on a misprint!
I mused as I drove homeward: take the hint,
And stop investigating my abyss?
But all at once it dawned on me that this
Was the real point. . . .

One might ask a similar question of the artwork accompanying Adam Kirsch’s poems: Would there have been a benefit in permitting readers to conjure their own images, or do we profit from this additional insight into the poetic process, the image that prompted the poem into motion?

The editors’ questions tell us what confused or interested them, which might create a sense of connection or of alienation: were you wondering what the editors wondered? If not, what questions would you have asked—and how did this distinction affect your analysis?

And did reading those questions—whether or not you shared them—stimulate you into further interrogation? Perusing the interview with Spencer Reece, for example, I was happy to gain insight on the “Christ-kiss.” Returning to the stanza where that phrase appears, I became fascinated by the nearby line “The day blued around us”: what does it mean for a day to “blue”? I wondered, too, how he settled on his shifting, subtle rhyme schemes in “Gilgamesh: Fourteen Fragments.” Sometimes a Q&A can prompt us to ask questions of our own.

Perhaps, like so many things, these concerns about interpretation, insight, and judgment boil down to sexiness—or, put another way, an attraction to the unknown. In response to the editors’ question “What, in a poem, is sexy?” Rae Armantrout says:

I think some kinds of uncertainty can actually be sexy. Did that word (that look) mean what I thought it meant? Double meanings in conversation, blues songs, or poems can be sexy. I think they can be sexy whether their content is overtly sexual or not. They’re sexy because they pull the reader into a relationship with the text in which the balance of power is uncertain or unstable.

Armantrout’s response reminded me of an observation in a Jhumpa Lahiri story that “sexy” means “loving someone you don’t know.” Our chronic uncertainty as we face poetry—our failure to know it, our need to ask questions—might then suggest a sexual relationship of sorts. It’s as though, as readers, we’re constantly on first dates, throwing questions at enigmatic strangers, balancing our attraction to mystery with our desire to know more. Or is that analogy itself questionable?

Paradoxically, questions reveal the interviewer’s certainties, opening them, too, up to question. Take a look at this inquiry, directed toward H.L. Hix: “Can you say something about the style of the poem? It seems very deliberately ‘unpoetic’ throughout, and yet there’s a slight but powerful tug toward lyricism in the title and in the last verse paragraph.” The use of quotation marks around the word “unpoetic” seems to acknowledge the imprecision, subjectivity, perhaps tiredness of the term, even as it remains, in the questioner’s mind, linked to “lyricism” (an association that may itself be subjective). Given these ambiguities, I loved Hix’s very subjective response:

I’m intrigued by the relationship between “the poetic” and “poetry.” I think by “poetic” we often mean whatever it is we expect a poem to look like: whatever features we project onto a poem, whatever parameters we impose on it. But I’m more excited by the unexpected in poetry than by the expected. I’m excited when I read poetry that shows me what I didn’t know a poem could be, or does something I didn’t know a poem could do, or even does something I thought a poem couldn’t do, so I try very hard to be “unpoetic,” on the premise that, just as Socrates’ wisdom consisted in recognition of his ignorance and Jesus’s divinity depended on his defiance of the religiosity expected of him, so what poetry I am capable of will derive somehow from my being willfully “unpoetic.”

This answer is as mysterious as it is explanatory: Hix’s notions of the “poetic” and “unpoetic” seem entirely personal, determined by his own sense of what a poem can look like; he doesn’t specify “poetic” features for the editors (or us). The fact that he considers himself “willfully ‘unpoetic’”—yet that his work tends toward both meter and lyricism—further obscures his idea of what the terms might mean. The editors’ question generates an answer that raises questions—and perhaps, as far as poetry reportage goes, that’s the ideal result.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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