December 2011 Discussion Guide

Hidden Messages

Questioning the Answers in the December issue of Poetry

Hidden Messages

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In addition to providing a fresh batch of poems, the December issue of Poetry stirs together editors’ questions and contributors’ answers. The result is a workshop in magazine form, a guide for the poetic perplexed: “Picking lines from others’ poems is hazardous and I don’t recommend it,” writes Maxine Kumin. “If the poet is too conscious of what’s happening, the poem will itself likely become too rational,” warns Dick Allen.

Dan Beachy-Quick notes the dangers of workshopping itself. After teaching Ezra Pound’s classic advice—“go in fear of abstractions,” “compose in the sequence of a musical phrase, not in the sequence of the metronome”—Beachy-Quick began to suspect it:

I walked away from that class, strange to say, angry, indignant, feeling somehow not only that I’d been duped, but so willingly had I been that now I was duping others. Worse—and this is what truly got to me—the advice almost always makes a poem better. That “making a poem better”—those warnings, that advice, those rules . . . that began to feel to me like some sort of genuine failure. Why, I wondered, is a workshop supposed to make a poem “better”? And in making a poem “better” by implicitly turning to a set of inherited conditions that have proven their worth over the course of nearly a century, am I secretly pushing students into a place of received values that, in the end, undermines exactly that sort of complicating work poetry does, and for which I love it so deeply?

For Beachy-Quick, traditional measures of quality have lost their meanings: programs for improvement seem guarantees of failure, and worth loses its value (as the stock market goes, so goes poetry). Do you share his suspicion of “received values”? If so, do you find all received values equally odious? Consider the traditions of poetic form, meter, and rhetoric. Are some customs necessary for progress? Imagine writing a poem without any sense of the poetic past: to paraphrase T.S. Eliot, how would you begin?

Beachy-Quick himself doesn’t abandon literary history so much as bicker with it. His  “In a Station of the Metro” works “within and against” Pound’s poem of the same title: If Pound compressed dozens of lines to a 14-word Imagist masterpiece (“The apparition of these faces in the crowd: / Petals on a wet, black bough”), Beachy-Quick would puff the work back up. He explains:

I wanted to believe that the poetic economy was not a scarce one, not an economy of dearth, but—more dearly—an economy that burgeons, that unfolds any singular instant into complexity, and can make of one crystalline syllable a manifold abstraction. I wanted to find that place, breathless as it might be, in which poetic abstraction also makes a claim on reality.

His page-long, punctuation-free poem is so gleefully hazy as to include the phrase “sort of” in its first line. How would you summarize the effect of his unusual poetics? If Pound’s advice predictably improves poetry, does willfully ignoring that advice—or "unfollowing" it, to borrow the jargon of Facebook — automatically worsen writing? And what does “worsen” mean? If Beachy-Quick can consider “better” interchangeable with “worse,” can we do the same?

Beachy-Quick’s explanation helps us read his “In a Station of the Metro,” permitting us passage on his trains of thought. Yet in answering editors’ questions, he raises another important one: How useful should such an explication be? Is it problematic if a poet reveals a reading that we would likely never have guessed? Note these lines from Alice Lyons’s “Developers”:

doorbells, rows of them, glow in the night village
a string of lit invitations no elbow has leaned into

(both arms embracing messages).

Poetry’s editors ask Lyons about the mysterious elbow, arms, and messages. She explains:

It’s a conflation of speech I’ve absorbed from people close to me here, one from Aberdeen, one from Armagh. My friend Hazel Walker, a Scottish artist, says you should use your foot to push open the door when you go visiting because you’re carrying too many nice things — say, oatcakes, honey, and cheese. By extension, you’d have to ring the doorbell with an elbow. And my husband, who’s from County Armagh, says he’s going out to the shop for “messages,” by which he means milk, the newspaper, bread, etc.

Would you have been able to intuit these readings without Lyons’s explanation? If not, does the terms’ opacity bother or please you? Without understanding the role of elbow, arms, and messages, one can focus instead on the sound of the sentence (the assonance of “string,” “lit,” “invitations,” “into”; the half-rhyme of “elbow” and “into”) and on the parentheses’ physical mimicry of embracing arms. And unaware of Lyons’s definition of “messages,” one might expand their meaning in the poem, imagining them as spiritual missives.

Then there are poets who, rather than offer involved explanations, say rather little. When the editors ask Linda Kunhardt if her poem “Road Work” is meant to resemble a cup, she simply says “No.” They ask if she can explain the humor in another poem, “Clifton Webb.” Again—rather in the style of Bartleby the Scrivener—she says only “No.” Of “More Juice Please,” she notes, “I have no idea how the poem works.” Perhaps, by openly professing doubt about what Beachy-Quick terms “doubtful work,” Kunhardt is saying just as much as those who say much more.

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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