I've recently been asked this question: Do you think poetry should manifestly take place outside of the mind of the maker? Or is “place” just one more construction?

And I feel like I don't understand the terms of the debate, or discourse. I said, so far: "You know, I think this is one I don’t have much of interest to say about. I feel like my poems all take place in some kind of figmented limboland, but I would never proscribe or prescribe this to anyone. I can see how “place” is political (because it’s social; because it’s personal) but I’m not sure how to articulate anything about that."

Can anyone articulate anything about this? If I just google "place" I'm lost. Does this question come under the purview of ecopoetics?

Originally Published: September 11th, 2009

Born and raised in New York City, Rebecca Wolff earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She authored Manderley (2001), selected for the 2001 National Poetry Series; Figment (2004), winner of the Barnard Women Poets Prize; The King (2009); and One Morning— (2015). Her work has appeared in BOMB...

  1. September 11, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    "Poetry should" is the beginning of a sentence that rolls into a minefield no matter how you look at it.

  2. September 11, 2009
     Stephanie Burns

    I think you can consider place a construction, since even if your poem is set in a real place, you are filtering that real place through your poetic consciousness. \r

    But I'm not sure why this matters, because any 'place' is a going to be a construction, even if that construction exists in the cultural consciousness. New York is a tangible city, but the associations it brings when you include that place in your poem are beyond the literal sidewalks and skyscrapers. Ultimately, the place where your poem takes place should depend on the poem, shouldn't it? It should depend on what is being said, not said, hinted at, etc. \r

    I guess I'm ultimately coming to the same conclusion that is stated above, that generalizing about what poetry should do is a dangerous business.

  3. September 11, 2009
     Miriam Levine

    Thinking about such useless questions would surely make a writer self-conscious. Place is real. There's empirical evidence! Yours for getting away from shop talk.

  4. September 11, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    As my ex-wife Jan always says, a should is a have-to without any teeth.

  5. September 11, 2009
     noah freed

    lol everyone responding as if the question makes any sense. "manifestly" doing some black ops work there. wuzzit mean?

  6. September 11, 2009
     Daisy Fried

    Well, of course place is a construction. Everything in a poem is a construction. A poem is really only ink and sounds. Everything else is imaginary. \r

    (Brushes hands off, briskly moves on...)\r


  7. September 11, 2009
     John Oliver Simon

    The great argument in Latin American poetics over the last half of the twentieth century was over where the poem ought to take place, and the divide was between Exteriorism (explicitly named as such by Ernesto Cardenal) and what you'd have to call in response something like Interiorism.\r

    The mainstream of Nicaraguan poetry was always exteriorist, including Joaquin Pasos, my favorite, and Pablo Antonio Cuadra, who was Cardenal's political enemy, but also a poet of social criticism. When the young punks in the nineties, the 400 Elefantes, wanted to rebel, they did it through writing highly interior, fragmented, convoluted poetry.\r

    The mainstream of Mexican poetry was always interior, going back to José Gorostiza and Xavier Villaurutia, and down through leading contemoporary poets such as David Huerta and Coral Bracho. Octavio Paz encouraged subjective, interior poetry because the one thing that was anathema to him was political poetry; but Paz is larger than that debate, there is plenty of exterior in Piedra de sol.\r

    Pablo Neruda warred furiously against those, like Borges and the Brazilian concrete poets, whom he saw as all up in their heads. Neruda wrote the Elemental Odes to the simple things, and in this "elemental" focus he was following his first teacher, Gabriela Mistral. Neruda used the word "tierra" no less than 1,697 times in his published work. There's plenty of interior in early Neruda, but he felt queasy about that stuff when he became a socialist realist.\r

    When the next generation of Chilean poets – Nicanor Parra, Enrique Lihn, Gonzalo Rojas, whom I have translated – inevitably rebelled against Neruda, they did so in part by going within and questioning the solid constructs of external reality.\r

    This is obviously a debate without a right answer, without a "poems should" that will work for anyone but you.\r

    I think the debate in Latin America has changed terms in the last twenty years, morphing into a divide between the neo-Baroque, which overflows with complex layers of vocabulary, and something more spare and "pure." But that's another story.

  8. September 13, 2009

    It is possible I do not understand the issue. Maybe I am missing an essential nuance of some sort. But when the discussion comes around to such questions I'll scratch and scratch my brain looking for an answer only to come back again to what Housman said in 1933. ""Poetry indeed seems to me more physical than intellectual." And again: "In short I think that the production of poetry, in its first stage, is less an active than a passive and involuntary process; and if I were obliged, not to define poetry, but to name the class of things to which it belongs, I should call it a secretion; whether a natural secretion, like turpentine in the fir, or a morbid secretion, like the pearl in the oyster."\r

    This is what works for me and, I guess, this is where I would "place" poetry.\r


  9. September 13, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Jabberwocky \r

    T'was brillig, and the slithy toves\r
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;\r
    All mimsy were the borogoves,\r
    And the mome raths outgrabe.\r

    “Beware the Jabberwock, my son!\r
    The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!\r
    Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun\r
    The frumious Bandersnatch!”\r

    He took his vorpal sword in hand:\r
    Long time the manxome foe he sought–\r
    So rested he by the Tumtum tree,\r
    And stood awhile in thought.\r

    And as in uffish thought he stood,\r
    The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,\r
    Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,\r
    And burbled as it came! \r
    One, two! One, two! And through and through\r
    The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!\r
    He left it dead, and with its head\r
    He went galumphing back.\r

    “And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?\r
    Come to my arms, my beamish boy!\r
    O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”\r
    He chortled in his joy. \r

    T'was brillig, and the slithy toves\r
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;\r
    All mimsy were the borogoves,\r
    And the mome raths outgrabe. \r
    - Lewis Carroll

  10. September 13, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    And hast thou slain the Jabberwock, my dear?

  11. September 13, 2009
     Wendy Babiak

    I think that really depends on the poem (like so many statements about "poetry"). There are some poems that seem like pearls, and some more like, to use a phrase someone coined at P&W recently,"heart farts." Or some other bodily discharge best composted.\r

    But then there are poems that are consciously constructed, one plank at a time, something entirely made. Is this not poetry, also?

  12. September 17, 2009

    Whatever maps onto our cages is the world.

  13. September 17, 2009

    I guess I thought poetry took place in the mind of the reader:)

  14. September 18, 2009

    I remember reading somewhere -- Sidney Lanier? Robert Pinsky? both? neither? -- that poetry took place in the column of breath of the person reading the poem aloud.\r

    Whoever came up with it, I like that pneumatic idea, especially how it marries the spiritual and the material in a completely literal way. \r

    It doesn't go very far toward explaining what poetry is, or how people end up in the funny situation of making it or taking it in.\r

    But it does define poetry as a physical activity. I'd call that a point in the idea's favor.

  15. September 18, 2009
     Krista Elliot

    I like that kind of "om" idea of a poem. Seems like an Olson idea, as well as a Ginsberg idea. Or maybe vice versa. There's also the idea that the "place" of the poem is the notebook, that the act of writing, manually manifesting language, is where it's at. Stevens wrote his poems walking to work. Or composed them in his head as he walked. His place was in-between.