My thanks to Erika Meitner, Jennifer Militello, Laurel Snyder, Lisa Olstein, Arielle Greenberg and Mark Bibbins for weighing in on the timely v. timeless question:

Erika Meitner

Timely!  Timely!

But part of this has to do with my current 'project' (whatever that means) about consumerism in all its weird guises.  I mean, life happens at the Food Lion.  Shit goes down at the Waffle House.  We have crises in the 7-Eleven.  Why iron these things out of our poems in a quest for timelessness?  But perhaps this has to do with not being a nature poet?  I think of O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died"--I love that poem so much because it's a road map for places, brands, objects that have disappeared.  You can map his route through a New York, through a time, through a sense of gifting and civility that doesn't exist any more--and that kind of artifact, to me, is so moving, so priceless, so timeless in its time-bound self.

Jennifer Militello

I want to write poems that are timeless because those poems I have loved I have loved in their timelessness, or at least that is how I see it. Those poems do not affect the surface of me that touches the surface of the world. Those poems I have most loved have moved the deep, the universal beast in me, have been sleepless in their layered seeing because they were so exactly right at their moment of creation and saw past the moment into an infinity of moments.

I want my poems to be timely, not necessarily in that they reference those everyday peculiarities of our time, but in that they create a vibrant present moment. Then to step forward and use that present moment, that vivid second suspended in the air, that very tangible reality whenever it occurs, to say something about those things that don’t die even as we do. As we lay down our flesh and let the inevitable in, love goes on, dying goes on, living goes on, women give birth, men watch other men play chess from their park bench, ‘postmen like doctors go from house to house.’

The flat realities before us don’t change. If we capture them well, if we grapple with them in a way that others connect with, that end product can last. Not as a pedestal for our temporary selves, but as a mirror of sorts for those others in another time who can find company or comfort at the crowd and facets that reflection holds. At its teeming insides, each of us is vying for what’s real.

But of course these same poems happen in a context, a web of influence, a dialogue between the living and the dead, a vast echo of all our voices crying out in an attempt to say what wants to be said, what must be said, what at times cannot be said.

Laurel Snyder

Until recently, I think I'd have said that I wanted my poems to be timeless.  But now I find myself inclined to answer neither.

I feel like I don't really trust the idea of timeless or timely anymore. In a world of blogging and twitter, everything is timely, and yet, nothing moves fast enough.  It's impossible to catch "now."

And timeless? What we used to think of as timeless seems a little untrue too.  I think maybe things were only ever timeless within a small circle.  Or a certain landscape, for a certain group of people.

Instead, I think I'm shooting for "particular."  I want my poems to speak to someone distinctly.   My readership maybe be a small circle of someones, but that's how it feels lately.  I'm not writing to be current or to have a place in history.  I'm part of a specific conversation.

Lisa Olstein

This may be too askew to suit your purposes, but thinking about time/ timeliness/timelessness in poems--the ones I read, the ones I write-- what I most want is for them to create a sense of time in and of themselves, one I move through. It's a desire for the poem to be experience not only a reflection of experience. Think Bishop's Little Exercise, or O'Hara's The Day Lady Died--to choose two classic examples--or a million others. You enter into time--an internal-landscape driven one akin to so called timelessness, an external-landscape driven one akin to so called timeliness--and move through it, over and over again if you like, and come out somehow transformed. Or at least having moved from one point to another. This seems to me a source of real power and urgency in a poem, one that encompasses successful timely (steeped in contemporary moment) and timeless (free of overly specific markers of moment or place) poems. Hope this makes some kind of sense.

Arielle Greenberg

I think I like to switch back and forth.  I love "timeless" poems like the ones I think Jean Valentine and Kate Greenstreet write--where even if there are markers of a particular moment in history, the overall effect is mythic, dreamlike, suspended in mid-air.  So sometimes I try to make poems like those, or, rather than saying I "try," because it is not so self-conscious, sometimes I get the desire to make poems like those, or I aim to make poems like those.

But I also feel the urge to tap deeply into the current political-historical-cultural-regional moment in which I live.  A marker of the poems I made when I first started publishing was a deep engagement in popular culture, so that still shows up in my work, though less and less, it seems (which makes sense, since I myself am less and less engaged in pop culture than I used to be).  But as someone who just adores the historical, the regional, the distinctive dialect and the site-specific, even when not thinking about pop culture, I am almost always thinking about CULTURE, and of course culture is a construct of time, largely.  So sometimes I make poems like those.

I want to read both kinds of poems, so I want to make both kinds of poems, I guess.

Mark Bibbins

Rachel when you asked this at Matthew Zapruder’s reading last September it was really humid and the chairs were too close together. That night you said don’t answer Both, which a lot of people would want to do, myself included, but also for me there’s a big dose of I Don’t Care Which One—maybe these are the same when I talk about time. Which means maybe it’s Neither. Uh oh.

Rachel I was a gay kid in the 80s, which meant coming of age around a lot of death. An abstraction at first, an acronym, and then friends died. Isn’t that what this question is at least partly about, making art to figure out how to navigate living (timely) and dying (timeless). 25 years later I’m apparently not dead but now time as I experience it moves alarmingly fast. So that’s a different problem, how do you keep yourself or anything else from disappearing and who gets to decide. Maybe not who’s making the poem but decisions are happening anyway, like whether or not to use tercets, which sounds like a mundane technical detail but is not. More measuring. We do what we do and then it’s up to others (readers, critics, translators, friends) to keep it going/doing. Abandoning not finishing.

Tomorrow you might come across a young guy—it’s always a guy—who’s written something like “I feel the burning of my Soul / as Time’s talons tear through bleeding holes.” I made that up, but is he trying to be timeless. Did he read a bit of Poe or Blake or (less likely) Dickinson in high school and get stuck there. Irony asks what’s the difference if it’s bad, but if you know don’t pretend you don’t.
Today I get anxious when I see Gchat or Bushwick show up in a poem. It’s like someone’s installed a little bomb that will cause the poem to self-destruct in five years, or in five months. Did a reference to Myspace need a footnote five years ago or will it five years hence. And yet the note Ana Božičević hits with her poem “The Day Lady Gaga Died” is the soft ping of an elevator opening onto the right floor (the title is the sliding door, the rest is a surprise). There’s an answer: depends on the poet and the poem: they each and all have different jobs.

Poetry is salt. You pack your products/personae/philosophies in there and the language preserves it all for as long as it does. Then again salt is made of the same elements as it was 500 years ago but English is not. Poetry is what’s left because of and in spite of language carrying it along.

Originally Published: April 27th, 2011

Poet and educator Rachel Zucker was born in New York and grew up in Greenwich Village, the daughter of novelist Benjamin Zucker and storyteller Diane Wolkstein. She earned her BA at Yale University and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.   Zucker’s expansive yet lyrical poems interrogate and deftly...