Letter from Poetry Magazine

Christina Pugh responds

by Christina Pugh
Christina Pugh responds:

If the category of “experience”—as defined by the inchoate expectations of many readers and reviewers of contemporary American poetry—really did encompass everything that Henry Gould, Zara Raab, and Fred Moramarco think it should, then my essay would not have needed to be written. But those who fault poets for a lack of “experience” are almost never criticizing the felicity with which discrete sensory impressions are rendered on the page. Neither are they looking to the life of Stevens as a template for the sort of experience they want to see reflected in a poem. And they certainly aren’t going to the OED to see if their stock definition of “experience” might be widened (admirable and enlightening though this endeavor may be). Instead, those who come to poetry looking for “experience” are really looking for a foothold in the narrative of the poet’s biography, for biographical “event,” and, yes, for a way to identify with the work.

I agree with both Gould and Raab that such a definition of “experience” is indeed impoverished and trivialized. But neither writer seems to have understood the intent of my essay. It was neither a trashing of extra-literary experience nor an exploration of the multiple definitions that “experience” might have if we tried to rehabilitate the term as a viable descriptor for what really does matter in any poetic endeavor (this is, in fact, exactly what Gould, Raab, and Moramarco seek to do in their letters). Instead, I was arguing against what has become, in some circles, an unarticulated cliché of literary expectation as well as an excuse to tear down poets in the academy. This is certainly not to say that every poet in the academy should be celebrated, but rather that his or her work should be judged by criteria other than the life experience of the writer.

Of the four respondents, only Mark Yakich realizes that “experience,” in the context of my essay, cannot be understood without quotation marks around it. His mock-bio note about dividing time between the kitchen and the bedroom delightfully sends up the fetishized, Procrustean “life experience” that we often see in poets’ book jacket biographies. It also opens up a very provocative question about the unspoken role of class and money in the “experience” debate (since poorer poets, after all, do not have the option of “dividing time,” i.e., maintaining two places of residence). I appreciate his comments, as well as those of the other writers here.
Originally Published: October 30, 2005

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This prose originally appeared in the September 2005 issue of Poetry magazine

September 2005

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Biography

Christina Pugh's third book of poems is Grains of the Voice (Northwestern University Press, 2013). She is an associate professor in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago and consulting editor for Poetry.

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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