Close Encounters with the Poem Itself

March 29, 2018

I had a very interesting conversation with two writer friends yesterday that eventually led me to an insight about what I want from poetry and other arts–in the very same way that working on a poem leads me to discover my own thoughts and feelings.  The discussion began with the recent flood of revelations about the sexual misbehaviors of many male writers, and the response by some to boycott their work.  I strongly disagree with that response–it strikes me as censorship and a moral litmus test–but I understand what triggers it.  I was appalled by the sexism of the poetry world I stepped into in about 1970, and saw a lot of offensive behavior, then and afterwards, by poets whose work I admired and loved.  Sometimes I took a break from reading their poems, but I always went back eventually and found a way to focus on the work rather than the life of the writer.

All of my early readings of contemporary poetry were encounters with the poems themselves, because I knew nothing of the poets’ lives.  I first read Sylvia Plath’s poems before I’d ever heard her name, let alone anything of her life and death, for example.  The same was true for Elizabeth Bishop, and many others, and I’m grateful that I started with the work.  My first literary approach to reading a poem was New Criticism, which reinforced my own focus on the poem itself, not the life of the poet.  I’ve added some layers to that in the years since, but that will always be my foundation and primary lens.  I’m as susceptible to curiosity and juicy gossip as anyone else, but I think what I learn about a writer’s life gets between me and the work far more often than it illuminates the work.  It becomes a kind of noise I have to tune out.  Of course there are exceptions–Colm Toibin’s On Elizabeth Bishop brings in snippets of the life to make insightful comments about individual poems, and especially the power of what she leaves out of them.  The biographies I’ve read of her don’t do that, and instead fill my head with irrelevancies I have to wash out when I read the poems.

Because what I want when I’m absorbed in a poem–and this is the heart of the matter–is an uncluttered encounter between me and the work of art.  I turn to art to leave behind the noise of everyday life and get in touch with something deeper, an experience that lets me return to daily life changed, enriched, challenged, seeing things in new ways.

Robert Frost was my first poetry love, and an enduring one.  When I read him as a child and then a teenager, what spoke to me was the darkness and loneliness: “My sorrow when she’s here with me/ Thinks these dark days of autumn rain are beautiful as days can be….”  And especially, since I lived in a desert landscape, “Desert Places”:

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
WIth no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

The last line took my breath away: How did he know?  How did he know?

When we were college seniors, a friend and I decided we were going to make a pilgrimage from Utah to New England to meet Frost the following summer.  Even though it was a fantasy, I was devastated when he died that January, before I could meet him.  It was only years later that I realized what a disaster it would have been if we’d managed to make the trip, somehow find him, and try to introduce ourselves to the man himself.  I think that’s a perfect example of the point I’m trying to make here: my deep connections were with the speaker of the poems, not the writer of them.  They were powerful, and touched on something true and real, things we did indeed have in common that would only have been obscured by the realities of daily life.  I want a tryst, a téte à téte, not with the poet but with the poem itself.

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  • Reply sharonbryanpoet March 30, 2018 at 6:29 pm

    from Molly McGee: I completely agree with your view, Sharon. I can’t help but think we are at our best when we are writing from “the direct source of it all.” That’s true for musicians and painters of course, and so on … people whose work I cherish, but would never want to share a drink with them. When the work and the person merge, it’s truly magical.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet April 2, 2018 at 2:08 pm

    from Corinna Merriman-Morris:
    I really agree with what you wrote and I’m so glad you wrote it! It’s become such an issue lately with films and other art forms. Somehow poetry feels enough of a different art form compared films that I, like you, can appreciate it too, in a way that doesn’t feel somehow “contaminated” by the creator of the art. I liked your story about Robert Frost, and I too have had the experience of finally meeting someone in person, whose work I have revered, and listening to a talk that he gave and feeling this big gulf between his work and his personal being as I perceived it. So it goes to the point that Molly McGee wrote about writing from the “direct source of it all,” which can be much larger than the actual personality though whom that source expresses itself.

  • Reply sharonbryanpoet April 2, 2018 at 2:12 pm

    Thanks, Corey. Your last sentence says exactly what I was trying to get at: connecting with something larger than the individual self, tapping into that. Another of my favorite Frost poems, “Directions,” ends with this couplet: “Here are your waters and your watering place./ Drink and be whole again, beyond confusion.” I’ve always meant to have that put on a little plaque I could attach to my poetry bookshelves.

  • Reply corey merriman-morris April 3, 2018 at 9:00 am

    Yes, Sharon…and I’ll add one more from Walt Whitman (who was a controversial figure in his time)

    This is thy hour O Soul,
    Thy free flight into the wordless.
    Away from books, away from art,
    The day erased, the lesson done.
    Thee fully forth emerging silent, gazing,
    Pondering the themes thou lovest best,
    Night, sleep, death and the stars.

    Walt Whitman

  • Reply Jeff Skinner January 1, 2019 at 10:55 am

    I had the same reading experience coming up, Sharon; thanks for expressing it so purely.

  • Reply Marcia Southwick February 25, 2022 at 12:21 pm

    My first break from the “New Critical” way of thinking–( I was taught to see the poem as a kind of machine unto itself,) came when I first read the poems of Robert Lowell. I could see his mind in action, driven by personal emotion. I was hooked by the incredibly intimate and personal way his poetry reached through me to something greater and universal. At the same time, the way he saw the world was anything but universal.

    This passage from “Skunk Hour” shifted the way I thought of the connection between the poet and the poem. I think it’s not just the personal confessional tone that makes it great. A living, breathing person is brought alive on the page.

    “A car radio bleats,
    ‘Love, O careless Love . . . .’ I hear
    my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
    as if my hand were at its throat . . . .
    I myself am hell;
    nobody’s here—

    only skunks that search
    in the moonlight for a bite to eat . . .

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