Discussion Guide

The Sun and Shadows

Questions and answers in the December issue of Poetry.

In our discussion guide for last April’s Q & A issue, we explored the value of publishing poets’ explanations of their work: Do their comments illuminate mysteries, or distract from the joy of unguided reading (and even of misreading)?

The December Poetry, also a Q & A issue, prompts a host of distinct inquiries. Quietly and persistently elegiac, it features Sina Queyras, Vijay Seshadri, Charles Baxter, Jane Hirshfield, and Attilio Bertolucci subtly memorializing friends, sisters, mothers, and sons. The form and content of the issue made us wonder whether explanatory prose about poetry qualifies as its own kind of elegy. Such writing honors its inspiration while always remaining apart from it; it both bridges and embodies the gap between itself and its subject. Some of Hirshfield’s lines illustrate this paradoxical proximity, where the desire to approach actually causes distance:

Too much longing:

it separates us
like scent from bread,
rust from iron.

Does our comparison with elegy ring true for you, or does another metaphor seem more appropriate? And did reading the writers’ prose make you feel closer to their poems (perhaps by answering questions you’d had) or farther away (perhaps by introducing new confusions)?

In their comments, several poets explored the idea of distance, often by pointing to prose’s remove from poetry. Discussing his poem Hôtel de Ville”—whose logic the Poetry editors called “fascinatingly, and intentionally, flawed”—John Tranter explained:

Logic belongs in textbooks or newspaper articles; there we need truth and economy and structure and lots of plain daylight. Poetry belongs to the other part of the mind, and its best energies relate to our shadowy unconscious urges.

If that’s so, then to what part of the mind does prose about poetry—the sort of prose Tranter is writing—belong? Since it aims to explicate, we might place it on the sunny side, far from poetry’s shadows. Does it make sense to plumb subconscious urges using conscious techniques? Someone once compared writing about music to dancing about architecture. If you agree with that observation, do you find writing prose about poetry to be similarly misdirected? Do the poets’ responses swing your opinion in one direction or another?

One of David Roderick’s comments reminded us that the divisions between poetry and prose are murky, that neither is a wholly sunny or shadowy enterprise. In replying to the editors’ query about his metaphor comparing doubt to a “clutched root,” he shows how the particular pressures of prose may serve not to answer questions, but—in the spirit of poetry—to raise still more:

Can a clutched root be pulled free? Is the root doing the clutching, or does some human (or non-human) hand clutch it? I hadn’t realized, until you drew my attention to it, how puzzling that particular metaphor actually is.

Likewise, sometimes prose seems to invite statements that sound remarkably, well, poetic. We were delighted to notice such nuggets hiding within the poets’ answers: Hirshfield describing certain experiences as “stones that can’t be rewetted,” or Baxter comparing the tone of a Schumann piece to a “birthday party seen underwater.”

In the midst of proving an unrelated point, Michael Robbins mentions a letter from a poet whose prose sounds like verse of the highest order. He quotes these sentiments from Emily Dickinson: “I heard of a thing called ‘Redemption’—which rested men and women. You remember I asked you for it—you gave me something else.” (Our own reading of Emily Dickinson’s letters has left these tidbits forever ringing in our ears: “My business is circumference.” And: “I should have liked to see you before you became improbable.”)

Robbins concludes by setting up a division between poetry and prose that he promptly collapses:

I always begin my poetry classes by telling my students a version of something Auden said: that if they want to write poems because they feel they have something important to say or something to express about themselves, they should take up creative nonfiction. But if they like playing around with syllables, they might be poets. Then I tell them that there will come a point when they’ll want to completely disregard that advice.

What do you make of the fact that Robbins formulates the point only to retract it? Does it resonate with your own experience writing poetry or prose? Do you notice these ideas at play in the issue—poets who seem more devoted to narration or to sonic experimentation?

Perhaps we should turn back to Dickinson for some final insight on the value of self-explanation. She writes: “The mind is so near itself it cannot see distinctly, and I have none to ask.” It’s a good thing others sometimes think to ask us.

Originally Published: December 7th, 2010