#PoemResearch: Notes on Researching as a Poet
Late in Leaving the Atocha Station, Ben Lerner’s novel about a young American poet on a prestigious fellowship in Madrid, we receive this capsule description of the research project our narrator has successfully evaded and talked around:
Maybe if I remained I would pursue the project described so many months ago in my application, composing a long and research-driven poem, whatever that might mean, about the literary responses to the Civil War, exploring what such a moment could teach us about ‘literature now.’ My Spanish would rapidly improve; I would not read Ashbery or Garnett or anything else in English, but hurl myself headlong at the Spanish canon; I would become the poet I pretended to be and realize my project. I would buy a phone and consummate my relationship with Teresa.
Through his fictional proxy Adam Gordon, Lerner gives us an experience of what it feels like to be on prestigious fellowship—if you were, say, a talented young poet with an almost crippling self-awareness of the privileges afforded by race, class, and gender, but not so crippling as to take the fellowship, then novelize your paralysis. Your predicament is hilariously summed up by the phrase: “the experience of experience sponsored by my fellowship.” For you, experience never appears without modifiers or within square quotes. You worry the difference between research and experience, or perhaps their increasing interchangeability. Everything and everyone for you is potential research. You need critical distance from your life. The novelization of your unsentimental education will be conceptualized, divided, and ironized into “phases,” a technique that will allow you to acknowledge institutional formations, structure the novel around a research plot, and gesture toward questions about the ways in which modern poetry has been affected by scientific rationality. Like a good poet, you want to defend imagination against scientific rationality but the new language is not yet there for you. You fake it until you make it, and then when you have seemingly made it, you remain haunted by the ghost of the genuine—its possibility in art, in life, and in love. Reader, I have felt like Adam Gordon.
I’m a poet and not a researcher is something I said in a recent conversation with an editor. The editor thought I encompassed both. I balked at the idea, even though they meant it as a favorable observation, even though it was a perceptive recognition of my intellectual preoccupations, mixed materials, and impassioned methods. To my selective ears, researcher still sounded too much like a job description; it made me seem too industrious, purposeful, methodical, like I was working on a project. I’m a lazy poet, a lazier scholar. But the editor was a good reader of my poetry and helped me become a better reader of my own work, so I felt compelled to give the question more thought. I also knew that my repulsion was a defense mechanism. I associated research with the academic articles and monographs I was trained to produce as a graduate student in literature and those I am expected to produce as an English professor. Then and now, research is often the enjoyable and stimulating part; it is the academic writing part I find difficult and resistant to my creative impulses and intuition. My research has often found its way into my poetry. Many of my poems explore the memory, history, and legacy of the Vietnam War from my perspective as a second generation Vietnamese American, a subject I researched and wrote about for my dissertation. My scholarship and my creative writing share much of the same archives. It’s what I do with the research that differs. As a poet, that means making poems.
But how ought a poet research? What do poets talk about when we talk about research? Why is it that when poets talk about research it is either a joke or cloaked in an aurora of seriousness? Type the hashtag and see for yourself. You’ll find tweets by poets along the lines of What’s the Spanish word for hickey? What causes ringing in the ear? There is an entire Wikipedia page about dust. There are five distinctive morphological patterns of necrosis. Has anyone out there ever sucked the caviar from a live fish? (Salmon). If so, is it cold or warm? Thanks! Is research for poets another technique to create experience, like sex or intoxication?
Three poets who use research in reflexive and reflective ways:
Susan Howe shattered two images at once for me when I first encountered her work as an undergrad. The first image was that of the poet as untutored beatnik haunting dimly lit cafés. The second was the scholar as passionless brain in lab coat or tweed jacket. She gave me permission to be what Coleridge calls “a library cormorant.” In Howe’s hybrid work research creates situations that increase chance correspondences and triggers involuntary memories. Her recent book Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of the Archives, “a collaged swan song to the old ways” of researching, is a remarkable splicing of passion and intellect, re-collected documents and recollected experience:
Reading Paterson reminds me of walking barefoot across a small strip of common land near my house that’s littered with beach glass, broken oyster shells, razor clams and kelp. It’s called a beach, but no one swims there because even at high tide what is euphemistically referred to as “sand” quickly becomes marl, mud, and marsh grass. I feel the past vividly here—my own memories and the deeper past I like to explore in poems. As I look across Long Island Sound I can imagine it as an open ocean.
Reading and walking. The page and the landscape. In Howe’s work we find research and poetry so intertwined as to be indistinguishable, a formal experimentalism that trespasses the laws of genre. The bit of prose quoted above characteristically breaks off into a line of lyric flight—“O Thalassa, Thalassa! / the lash and hiss of water // The sea!” from William Carlos Williams’s Paterson, Book III, The Library. In Howe’s title you hear echoes of Williams’s “to make a start / out of particulars” and think: No research but in things! For Howe, researching and writing are complementary, mutually affecting acts. Howe’s poet-researcher is a scout, a rover, a trespasser unsettling the wilderness of American literary history. Her poems and essays continually enact that anticipatory moment before discovery, of making connections, before anything is ever fixed into ideas. “If you are lucky,” she writes, “you may experience a moment before.” Reading her writing you experience the feeling of thinking: “Each collected object or manuscript is a pre-articulate empty theater where a thought may surprise itself at the instant of seeing. Where a thought may hear itself see.”
Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard is a rescue mission, like Howe’s work, to lift human voices out of historical silence. The title poem, based on the poet’s research into the history of the first black regiments during the Civil War, adopts the historical personae of the Louisiana Native Guards. I think of her “Native Guard” as Civil War reenactment pieces in sonnet form. Here is how the first sonnet, “November 1862,” opens the sequence:
Truth be told, I do not want to forget
anything of my former life: the landscape’s
song of bondage—dirge in the river’s throat
where it churns into the Gulf, wind in trees
choked with vines. I thought to carry with me
want of freedom though I had been freed,
remembrance not constant recollection.
Better perhaps to call “Native Guard” a monument of sonnets, as Trethewey uses her technical mastery of the formal verse to memorialize the black Union dead. In the corona (crown)—the last line of the initial sonnet acts as the first line of the next, and the ultimate sonnet’s final line repeats the first line of the initial sonnet—Trethewey finds a form to represent intersecting lines of history and the essential mixing that makes American identity. If “Native Guard” at times telegraphs its meaning and mission, the poems nonetheless seem willing to risk their more formulaic statements in order to achieve their re-visionary force as counter-narratives. “Some names shall deck the page of history / as it is written on stone. Some will not,” as it is written in the sonnet for “June 1863.” These poems do not engrave names (the speakers of the sonnets remain nameless), but instead they imagine past lives in the present tense. Other sonnets log the nightmare of history (“Last night, / I dreamt their eyes still open – dim, clouded / as the eyes of fish washed ashore, yet fixed - / staring back at me”). Trethewey describes her process of researching as a poet in an interview: “Then, before I could write I had to shove it all aside. I had to forget everything from the front of my brain, or at least in the foreground of my thinking, to forget all that I had read. But it was still there for me to access as I tried to write poems. It didn’t go away, but I had to get out of the mode of researcher and back into the mode of poet.” Trethewey has had to rely on her own intuition, invention, and imagination to conjure these voices from the past as if they had been passed down and collected in a research library. That is the melancholy of these sonnets as imagined documents. The sonnets stand in not only a proxy witness, but also as proxy documents for what has been lost or uncollected.
Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems combines the experimentalism of Susan Howe with the formalism of Natasha Trethewey into a remarkable unity of autobiographical lyric, archival research, and literary activism. Structured as a triptych, the collection begins and ends with autobiographical lyric poems. The central panel is “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” an archival lyric made up entirely of the titles of artworks, from ancient times to the present, that feature or comment on the black female figure in Western art. The title poem is divided into eight sections, or “Catalogs,” a keyword that points back to the libraries, archives, and museums listed in the final “Notes” section of poem. In “Catalog 4: Medieval Colonial,” the list is one of numerous representational strategies:
The slaves escaping through
the swamp, The Slave watching
her pursuers in for e—
Ground Black Woman walking in front
of a Board Fence Background Plantation House
and Outbuildings (or Slave Quarters).
In a Grove of Trees Slave Woman wearing Runaway.
Collar with Two Children, emaciated.
Negro Man eating Dead.
Horseflesh in the background.
Negro Man strapped to a ladder, Being.
Lashed Slave Woman seen
In Coste Lewis’s work a reader must constantly negotiate the meaning of what is being named and seen in a shifting “for e / Ground” that, as glimpsed in the above lines, becomes unsettled as words are pulled apart, isolated, and recombined, or punctuation errors and random capitalization disrupt the flow of reading. Here and elsewhere “Voyage” runs interference against the descriptive violence of representations of the black female figure in Western art—that is, descriptions of scenes of violence, but also descriptions that reveal ways of looking at, categorizing, ordering, and subjugating that rationalizes acts of violence. She uses the poetic catalogue against the colonial order of things, disordering the sight, sound, and sense of words. Researching for Coste Lewis—as it is for Howe and Trethewey—means researching back, a critical and creative strategy to interrogate the past and to write poetry that shifts our knowledge in the present.
Let’s remember what Frank O’Hara says in his poem “Having a Coke with You”: “what good does all the research of the Impressionists do them / when they never got the right person to stand near the tree when the sun sank / or for that matter Marino Marini when he didn’t pick the rider as carefully / as the horse / it seems they were all cheated of some marvelous experience / which is not going to go wasted on me / which is why I’m telling you about it.” Research desires touch. Research does no good without the kind of intimate knowledge we associate with lovers. And also what Guy Davenport discovers in his essay “Finding”: “I learned from a whole childhood of looking in fields how the purpose of things ought perhaps to remain invisible, no more than half known.” I want a research that follows the unsystematic, lackadaisical, and serendipitous zig-zag of walking through an oak savanna or reconstructed prairie. Finally, for now, I return to Susan Howe after Leaving the Atocha Station. Unlike Adam Gordon, Howe does not go in fear of experience. “In this room I experience enduring relation and connection between what was and what is,” she writes. Language remains the quarry, truth and beauty still the quest.
Hai-Dang Phan was born in Vietnam and grew up in Wisconsin. He is an assistant professor of English at Grinnell College.