In my latest poetry review on Huffington Post UK, I look at the newest collections of three poets with decidedly unique worldviews. More than this, what excites me about the trajectory in each collection is that in addressing gender, they have moved beyond postmodern deconstruction and disillusionment, expressing integrated perspectives whose reconciliation feels earned. That is, they do not simply open the wound for the sake of it, but to cleanse and thereby better heal.
A nun spikes her drinks with sacramental wine and wears red lace underwear. A soldier’s wife sits by the bed of a man whose legs have been blown off, and writes his story. In the hands of the poet, Sleeping Beauty has an MRI and Red Riding Hood becomes a femme fatale. Though rich in social commentary, these three American women poets tell their stories, not in generalisations, but through each well-honed line. As Wallace Stevens admonished, “Conceptions are artificial. Perceptions are essential.” The perceptions of these three are sensuous, evocative, and riveting.
Read the full review on Huffington Post UK.
The currency of trust
The conversation of poetry takes many forms. The following three types of conversation are metaphors that illustrate some of the trust dynamics at play in contemporary poetry. See if you recognize them — both the actual conversations, and the experience of the conversation, transposed onto the experience of reading certain poems.
The first is a conversation with that friend who is always at the effect of some terrible circumstance. They tell you, in detail, the latest mishap, and with such conviction that it would be difficult not to feel sorry for them — if you were naive enough not to realize, after mishap after mishap, and tale after tale, that with them, the drama will never end. But the more you try to inure yourself to their tales, the more dramatic they become. In the end, you can’t help but feel emotionally manipulated. Even if this person believes their own story, it is hard to trust them not to tug excessively hard, fast, and often at your heart strings.
The second kind of conversation is one among acquaintances, perhaps a group of smart freshmen undergraduates getting to know themselves and each other in uncertain new circumstances. Here wit is the currency of the conversation, a constant repartee. In this atmosphere of intellectual one-upsmanship, conversation is designed to hold the others at emotional arms’ length, never risking anything intimate unless it is couched in a sarcastic tone. Any sense of trust in what is being said is constantly subverted by clever, fast-paced ripostes. I have often left such gatherings with a deep sense of alienation.
Visual Cortex diagram courtesy Wikipedia
I have been questioning my preference for reading poetry on paper versus digital text for some time now, wondering what might underpin these instincts. It recently occurred to me that the difference in mental state I experience when reading a book versus surfing the web may actually have a basis in science. The advent of digital text has made a staggering amount of information available to us, and thereby altered forever how we learn. The further proliferation of digital text through the internet, and especially now with blogging and social networking, has made our ability to filter through words a survival skill. We must read faster than ever in the information age, skimming for nuggets of meaning or amusement.
Just how have we learned to read faster in the information age? Short of a research grant, an EEG machine, and plenty of literate volunteers, I have only a sample size of one, and my subjective methods of self-observation to guide me. But my theory is that we bias the visual processing centers of our brain, instead of the auditory centers, when surfing the web. This theory is supported by speed-reading courses that attempt to eliminate sub-vocalization and auditory processing to teach people to read faster. And yet, poetry has been an aural medium for centuries.
What are the implications for our poetics when readers stop listening to poetry in their head? Continue reading…
What follows is my subjective analysis of a statistically insignificant data set. That said, I did not conduct my experiment in search of hard-and-fast conclusions. Instead, I created a simple poll about poetry and prose titles, and asked participants what, if anything, surprised them about the results. I wanted to be surprised myself, to discover something new about how people relate to poetry. And I was.
Obviously, people got questions wrong, individually and collectively. In fact, the collective wisdom didn’t end up being that much more reliable than a coin toss. But far more interesting, and unexpected, was the difference between the answers that poets and non-poets gave about which titles they thought were poetry, and which were prose. Continue reading…
I have been reflecting on postmodernism and poetry, and came up with the idea of a quick, easy poll to help develop some of these thoughts.
Care to help me out? You don’t have to know a thing about poetry to participate. For each title in bold, simply click “poetry” if you think it sounds like the title of a poetry book, or “prose” if you think it sounds like a prose book’s title.
Ready? Here we go.
“Our planetary reality has split in two into the so-called West and the so-called East, and I have drunk from both one and the other poisoned well. I have also become convinced that the puzzle of the thirties still cries out for a solution.”
I find myself intensely drawn to twentieth-century Polish poets. Having borne waves of tragedy in the last century, from the Holocaust to oppressive Soviet occupation, the country itself seems have been flung into a kind of national existential crisis. And so, its sensitive and intelligent poets grapple deeply and boldly with questions of faith and reason, tragedy and hope, nihilism and meaning. Many of them, like me, are fascinated with the allegorical dimensions of the Book of Job, with Nietzschean philosophy, with reconciling the tragedies of the great World Wars with the sometimes inexplicable beauty of this world. In short, they face down the deepest questions about what it means to be alive.
Yet I do not think it is only me, or only Polish poets, who must come to terms with these questions. Triggered by the worldwide disillusionment brought about by the global spectacle of the Second World War (brilliantly explained by Miłosz in The Witness of Poetry), it seems that Postmodernism is the first stage of grieving our collective loss of faith in centrality and certainty. I believe we can, and must, move past this stage by confronting the deep questions that surfaced in this time. We must heal the unspeakable wound.