I’ve been reading some very strange and challenging critical writing today, essays explicating one poem each, and this reading makes me think about the many ways a reader can engage or interact with a poem. Discussing what happens in a poem is only one way of approaching it; in fact, it’s probably just the first step: understanding who is talking and who is being talked about, where they are or what situation they are in. Then one must go deeper, or if deeper is not the right word (because it’s tired to the point of perhaps not meaning much), begin to pick at the overall fabric of the language (tone, diction [high, low, a mixture], then word choices) and then to upturn particular words, trace why the poet chose them, speculate as to their origins in other texts, then give examples of those origins to substantiate those speculations. Whether or not a poet is intending to make certain associations between words in one text and another—even if they just mean to say whatever it is they are saying and not reference anything—they still do, and those associations are part of the fabric of the made poetic object, just as a certain kind of brick is a part of a wall and to describe the wall in detail, one must know about the bricks. So, in that way, the aspects of the poet’s own personality that led her or him to make particular choices are as much under scrutiny as the words on the page (I’m countering New Criticism here, aren’t I?); to explore a poem in as many ways as possible, I can’t see another way to think about it: the poem’s relation to the whole world (of which the poet is certainly a part) is under scrutiny.
Saw an excellent reading tonight at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project: Michael Scharf and Steven Burt. Scharf ripped through his discursive, obsessive, associatively charged poems, leaving off suddenly with a startling cliffhanger in medias res. Burt read a wonderful sestina that impressively and clearly laid out how America got itself into the mess it’s in with the current administration. It was one of the most pleasurable hours of poetry I’ve heard in a long time.