On seeking too much “meaning” when writing

Back in February of 2012, I wrote the following “response paper” for a class on form and theory of poetry.  I thought it might be worth sharing.

Don’t worry if you are unfamiliar with whom I reference or the texts I reference; the point is sharing the thoughts.

William Carlos Williams says unhappily, in “On Measure”: “Most poems I see today are concerned with what they are saying, how profound they have been given to be.  So true is this that those who write them have forgotten to make poems at all of them.”  I realize that here Williams is emphasizing how often ‘measure’ is overlooked, but this also brings in the idea of trying to write a poem while concerned with ‘meaning.’

Going into writing a poem with a specific ‘meaning’ to convey won’t yield good poetry.  A poem should not have a thesis.  If a ‘poem’ can be summed up into a thesis statement, it is not a good poem.

Rather than an interest in “saying,” a poet should have an interest in how saying happens.   Poetry is interested in the complexity of “saying,” not so much the “saying” itself.  Poetry is interested in the “how” more than the “what.”

Nathaniel Mackey says, “One of the reasons the music so often goes over into nonspeech—moaning, humming, shouts, nonsense lyrics, scat—is to say, among other things, that the realm of conventionally articulate speech is not sufficient for saying what needs to be said.”  Similarly, poetry should feel that conventional speech is not articulate enough for its method of “saying.”

Delivery is more significant in a poem; content is more significant in conventional speech.

Certainly, “content” is not independent of “delivery”—“delivery” is another word for form (“delivery” is the word choice I am leaning toward here because I am thinking of how “delivery” suggests more of a process, more of a “how” than “form” does); as has been said many times in the world of poetics/art, form is an extension of content.  And content cannot exist without form.

Language, in a sense, is a spectrum/graph with “content” and “delivery” at either end, but the ends have sort of an asymptote of what is relatively rich at the other end: while at the furthest point in “content,” there is still a value of “delivery” that is approaching zero but can never reach zero (so long as content is indeed there).  And, the amount of delivery relates to the amount of content: they do not negatively correlate, for as one decreases the other diminishes as well.  They rely on each other.  The “saying” relies on how the “saying” is said, and vice versa.  One does not clearly arrive first.

Someone overly concerned with what she is saying tends to constrain the voice, which thus limits the depths and complexity of what is being said and how it is being said.  With this in mind, I understand this (in somewhat odd syntax) statement of Mackey’s: “This wooing of another voice, an alternate voice, that is so important to duende has as one of its aspects or analogies in poetry that state of entering the language in such a way that one is into an area of implication, resonance, and connotation that is manifold, many-meaninged, polysemous.  One has worked beyond oneself.”

Secretly, the concern with saying is what am I saying?  Once the voice is released from being constrained to what the poet thinks she should say, more voices join in to the ‘speech’ of the poem.

The voices overlap, push against each other, and join as they exist in the same poem.  Possibilities grow, and discoveries are made by the writer and reader.

That said, I want to clarify that my broad definition of poetry can include conventional speech (one of the questions I was considering was whether it’d be generally “good” poetry or not; it can indeed be done….).

A more present-day note: I heard Christian Wiman give a reading recently, and he mentioned how writing poetry is a creation and annihilation of an “I,” simultaneously (which relates to my ending comments above, although I don’t think of the loss/lessing of an “I” as an annihilation).

Does your poetry have an “I”?  If so, what is the effect of the “I”?  What is the effect of a lack of “I”?  How does a sense of “I” affect your writing process?