Friday, July 10, 2020

Does a Poem Have to Stand on Its Own?

An intriguing question came up in my poetry writing group the other day. One of the poets brought in a poem that had exciting language, and seemed to be about a fascinating topic. But no one in the group could quite figure out the general subject of the poem. Once the poet clued us in about the theme of the poem, all the pieces fell beautifully into place, and we could see how strong a poem it was.

The writer said that the poem made sense in the context of a collection in progress, where several of the poems that come before this one are about the same topic. The poet asked, “Should a poem be able to stand on its own?”

Great question! Thinking about it, I realize that we usually encounter poems differently now than we did before the Internet became the dominant source of information. In a collection of poems by the same writer, there are many opportunities for a poem to rely on the works around it for context and support of its meaning.

Books of poems where individual poems are just part of the volume or part of a series within a collection were once not unusual, such as William Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Ezra Pound’s The Cantos, or John Berryman’s The Dream Songs

Handwritten manuscript of Wordsworth's The Prelude
Few of the poems of those books make a lot of sense when you read them individually, with no idea of the project of the entire collection, but taken together, each poem is understandable. Well, fairly understandable, in the case of Pound or Berryman!

But how often do we now read an entire collection assembled by the same writer? Usually, we read poems online, in literary magazines online or in print, or in anthologies, where poems are rarely in the setting of several other related poems by the same writer.

These days, authors are lucky if one to three hundred readers pick up an entire collection of their poems. Much more frequently, our poems are encountered one webpage at a time, experienced separately by a reader. This is one huge advantage that poetry has over other literary genres, such as fiction or drama—most poems can fit easily on a webpage. Why give up that advantage by requiring more context to understand a poem?

So my personal answer to the question, “Does a poem have to stand alone?” is an unequivocal Yes, especially in the era of the Internet.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other posts on writing topics:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

No comments:

Post a Comment